The general consensus, one that is hard not to agree with, is that Unbroken is soaked in good intentions, but falls short again and again. To reduce this film to its lowest form, there is only so many times you can watch a man get hit in the face before you lose interest (even if that face belongs to a very good actor).
Unbroken is the English-language feature debut from Angelina Jolie, following 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, and the film follows Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner-turned US Air Force bombardier who is lost at sea for 47 days before being interned as a Japanese prisoner of war. Whilst here he becomes the target of Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, who runs the POW camp.
Apart from an excellent score, the acting is the film’s strongest point. Jack O’Connell as Zamperini is a powerhouse. Most young people will only recognise O’Connell as the unhinged Cook from BBC teen drama Skins, and that same churning, unbalanced nature comes through in his portrayal of Zamperini. If nothing else comes out of this film, I hope that it launches O’Connell’s career even further, following the festival hits Starred Up and 71 (neither of which I have been able to see, admittedly). The supporting cast includes Domnhall Gleeson, who delivers a subtle and funny performance as a man who Zamperini is lost at sea with.1 Garrett Hedlund is also a stand out, his deep voice and effortless charm lends itself well to a man who never gives information to the enemy. Takamasa Ishihara, or better known by stage name Miyavi, plays The Bird. Miyavi is actually a hugely famous Japanese rock star. Even with almost no acting experience, he has enormous pull. I know this because I was surrounded by several young Japanese fans who giggled every time he was on screen.
While watching the film, it seems as though The Bird’s only impetus for the targeting of Zamperini is that he is threatened by his status as an Olympian. If this is the case, simple jealousy doesn’t seem like enough of a drive to cause such insane abuse of a singular captive, or at least isn’t convincing enough in the film. Directly after watching the film, my friend and I discussed at length how there was almost a sexually charged element to the dynamic between The Bird and Zamperini, but we chalked this up to us both always trying to find homoerotic subtext in everything, and also both being attracted to Miayvi (the high femme rock star). After some light research for this review, it seems as though the real Wanatabe admitted he gained sexual pleasure from beating captives, but in the film, it comes off as muddled and confusing. If I was being generous, I would say that it’s possible this was intended as subtlety, but instead, the dynamic between The Bird and Zamperini seems ludicrous and inexplicable. Why is the leader of this camp so obsessed with this one dude? Why is this strict Japanese sergeant weeping about it? The film lacks any real justification for this narrative element.
Ultimately, while the acting and scope of the film is admirable, the film is too long, and too repetitive. There did not need to be three separate shark attacks while they were lost at sea. A scene in which The Bird orders every captive in the camp to punch Zamperini in the face should not have felt like we as moviegoers were watching him be punched for a full 10 minutes. The length and repetition is in some ways understandable. An argument could be made that the drawn out feel of the film was intentional.2 It might have been intended as a stylistic choice meant to mirror the searing boredom of this kind of long lasting treatment. Here, though, it smacks of inexperience, which is surprising considering the crew members involved. I vaguely knew I was walking into a film written by the Coen Brothers but I was still shocked to see their names in the final credits. I felt as though I had forgotten my whole life watching this one guy get punched a million times.
This film will appeal to many people. People everywhere (well, in America mostly) will have made impassioned Facebook statuses with the (painfully obvious) catchphrase of the film, “If you can take it, you can make it.” It’s a movie about the strength of one man against unbelievable adversity, and one does certainly not want to imply that Zamperini’s story is not remarkable or worthy of such a large scale epic, but this is an average film, made about a great man.
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