Over the past couple of years it’s become an annual tradition for stories of human endurance to hit cinema screens at this time of year, presumably because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences favours such movies. Two years ago we had Life of Pi and The Impossible, while last year gave us All is Lost, 12 Years a Slave and The Railway Man. (Meanwhile the Hobbit movies have served as an endurance test for viewers.)
This year we have Unbroken, a movie that feels like a Greatest Hits of Human Endurance, giving us a compilation of moments not dissimilar to those seen in the aforementioned movies, like That’s Entertainment for sado-masochists.
The true and inspiring story of Louie Zamperini, Olympic athlete and WWII vet who survived air raids, 45 days in open sea with no food or water, and two years in Japanese POW camps under torturous conditions.
As the title and synopsis might suggest, the film focuses on the incredible will and fortitude of Louie Zamperini (O’Connell) throughout the ordeals he underwent during WWII, in an almost by-the-numbers biopic style with some intercutting flashbacks. Spoilers: He doesn’t die. And this film, despite running at just under two hours, really feels like 45 days out at sea and two years in prison camps. It takes a lot of pages from the War Movie Handbook, the classics from two and three decades ago: picture-perfect shots of the story’s villain (an absolutely spectacular Miyavi) against the backdrop of a waving Japanese flag, inspiring patriotic trumpets, flashbacks that tell the story of Zamperini’s rise to fame.
Yet in truth, we’ve seen this film before at least a dozen times. Jolie is perfectly decent as the director, and her stars are on form throughout, but the film has absolutely nothing new to offer the world of cinema.
While the story is moving and inspiring, it is told in such a bland and dry way that the intended effect of admiration for these remarkable people becomes lost in overlong, overdramatic, oversaturated scenes, one after the other, without a semblance of pacing in sight. The build up of the flashbacks that establish Zamperini’s background as a kid with behaviour issues who got straightened up by his older brother is rendered mostly irrelevant, as none of his experiences contribute to his ultimate survival except for one line–“If I can take it, I can make it”–which could have been dealt with in a much more succinct way.
The movie’s most effective segment is its ‘Lost at sea’ chapter, as Zamperini and his fellow survivors attempt to make the best of their situation. The arrival of a Japanese bomber plane, which bizarrely goes out of its way to attack the men on the dinghy, steers the film into the realm of incredulity, where it unfortunately beds down for the remainder of its running time.
The film’s weakest segment is unfortunately its longest – that of Zamperini’s time in the POW camps. Here he makes an enemy of a sadistic Japanese officer nicknamed ‘The Bird’, played by Miyavi, a Japanese popstar, just like Ryuichi Sakamoto in the similarly themed Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. No reason is given for The Bird’s personal interest in Zamperini, but there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism, though I suspect this is unintentional on the filmmaker’s part. Likewise, Zamperini’s motivation for trouble-making is equally ambiguous. With so many questions raised by the odd actions of its characters, Unbroken isn’t so much Bridge on the River Kwai as Bridge on the River Quoi?
But a film is more than just the sum of its parts. It’s the total of the experience that shapes one’s overall enjoyment, and in the case of Unbroken the one word sum would be ‘tiring’.
To top things off, we are subjected to an out-of-context Coldplay song during the epilogue, as we learn what the real-life counterparts of the characters we’ve seen in the film got up to later in life. Upbeat, modern, and completely mismatched with the tone and atmosphere of the film, it serves only to estrange us even further from Zamperini’s horrible but courageous experiences.
For all its premature Oscar buzz, Unbroken will most likely be remembered as the movie that broke O’Connell Stateside. 2014 has been quite a year for a young actor who previously seemed to be stuck in a rut, playing a series of chavvy thugs in movies like Eden Lake and Tower Block. If you only see one of his movies this year, Starred Up and ’71 should be well ahead of this on your shortlist.