It is Angelina Jolie’s misfortune that Unbroken (her second fictional feature as director) is released at a time when she is caught in the crossfire of the Sony hacking scandal. Inevitably, attention has been deflected from her very well-crafted film, which deserves more serious attention than is currently being paid to it.
Jolie has some heavyweight collaborators. The Coen brothers, Richard La Gravenese and William Nicholson all contributed to the screenplay and Unbroken was shot by the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins.
It turns out to be a rousing, full blooded war movie but one which also sometimes feels derivative and a little heavy handed. As she showed in her previous feature, the grim Balkan war drama/romance In the Land Of Blood And Honey, Jolie isn’t afraid of showing violence and brutality on screen. She is also clearly fascinated by machismo and by the extremes of male behaviour during wartime.
The film features another outstanding performance from young British actor Jack O’Connell. After his roles as the British soldier lost in the streets of Belfast in ’71 and as the aggressive, endlessly defiant young prisoner in Starred Up, he is again made to suffer here. He plays Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American from a poor background who competed as a middle-distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and spent over two years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War.
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Zamperini is shown in flashbacks as a young delinquent. (“Why don’t you go back to Italy, you and your greasy woo family,” he is taunted by the local kids.) He spends his time fighting, getting into scrapes and peeping at girls. The running gives him a sense of purpose and self-respect. “If you can take it, you can make it” is his motto. Just for a moment, it seems as if Jolie is offering a US version of Chariots Of Fire but then comes the war.
After their plane is hit, Zamperini and his fellow Air Corp colleagues crash land in the sea. This is shot in juddering and dramatic fashion. The film then becomes becalmed and loses its momentum as the survivors spend over 40 days waiting to be rescued. We see them eating seagull and then retching.
Their ordeal at sea is as nothing to what Zamperini endures when they are “rescued” by the Japanese navy and put in POW camps. “You are enemies of Japan and you will be treated accordingly,” they are told by the disconcertingly cheerful but extremely sadistic camp commandant Watanabe (played by rock musician Miyavi.)
Much of the rest of the story is about the long suffering Zamperini being bloodied and beaten by his captors…but never (as the title has already told us) “broken.” The disappointing aspect to a film made with such an obvious heartfelt commitment is that Jolie is never able to pull back and give us a bigger perspective. We get little sense, for example, just why Watanabe behaves with such cruelty.
The film is far less insightful about the homo-erotic dimension to the relationship between captor and captive than Nagisa Oshima was in his 1983 film, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Jolie’s main preoccupation is with portraying Zamperini as a martyr. There is some crucifixion symbolism - Zamperini holding a log on his shoulders and above his head. In one strange scene, the commandant invites half the camp to smash him in the face. As in Starred Up, O’Connell’s character takes his beatings with a fatalistic endurance - and he never becomes bitter of self-pitying.
For all the excellence of O’Connell’s performance, the film becomes increasingly one dimensional. It’s all about the suffering of a single man. Jolie’s direction gives the film an oppressive intensity but what Unbroken lacks is any sense of nuance or humour that would enable us to see Zamperini’s plight from more than one point of view.