Friday, December 12, 2014

Film Review: Unbroken (2014)

In theory, Unbroken should be a very good, if not great film. It has so much going for it. It has a fantastic real-life story, that of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner who joined the airforce in World War II, then spent several years in a series of Japanese prisoner of war camps. In bringing the story to life, the film has the benefit of a screenplay written in part by Joel and Ethan Coen, cinematography by perpetual Oscar bridesmaid Roger Deakins, and a lead performance by Jack O'Connell, the young British actor who gave one of the year's best, most incendiary performances in David Mackenzie's Starred Up. In execution, though, all that talent combines to make a film which only occasionally manages to be good, and for the most part is just bland and flavourless.

It's tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the director. Film is, after all, a director's medium, and Angelina Jolie has only directed one film before, the little-loved romantic drama In The Land of Blood and Honey. But Unbroken is, in a lot of substantial ways, a well directed film. Perhaps ironically, given that it is primarily meant to be a film about the triumph of the human spirit, its strongest moments are its most visceral. The aerial battles that open the film and form the backdrop of Louis' service are thrillingly assembled, with a clear-eyed, muscular quality to them that recalls the work of Clint Eastwood. The scenes set at the 1936 Berlin Olympics are also exciting, despite long distance running being one of the hardest sports to make dynamic. Even at its worst, Unbroken remains a handsome, well-crafted picture.

But beneath the glossy visage, the film is bloodless. It maintains a cool, even tone throughout that barely fluctuates, regardless of what is happening in any given scene. Moments like the young Louis getting into a fight with kids who insult him for being Italian-American have the exact same tone as the ones of him taking part in bombing raids, which in turn have the same tone as the long stretch in the middle of the film where Louis and several of his compatriots are stranded in the middle of the ocean. Jolie and her collaborators clearly have a lot of respect for the story they are telling, but their reverence prevents the film from having much passion, or from cohering into anything like a decent narrative. Instead, it feels like a series of well-shot scenes that happen to follow each other.

A spark does come into the film once Louis is taken prisoner. As he and his fellow captives are placed under the supervisor of Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe (Miyavi), a vicious officer who uses his power to commit violence against the prisoners for even the smallest infraction, the story finds a fulcrum around which to pivot. O'Connell and Miyavi are great in their scenes together, with the former projecting a steely-eyed resilience that retains enough fragility to remain human, and the latter convincing as a ruthless sadist. Crucially, both suggest that their characters, while being wholly different in demeanour and action, draw their strength from a core faith and belief, either in God or the rightness of their cause, that drives them both through to their final confrontation.

However, they don't meet until the second hour of the film, by which point Unbroken has squandered a lot of time and talent. It tries to encapsulate a decade of Zamperini's life, but most of it feels like unnecessary baggage since so little of it matters by the time The Bird enters the picture. Attempts to make stories of home resonant fall flat because Zamperini's home life isn't portrayed in a particularly interesting way. His family members end up seeming like ciphers for thousands of similar characters in countless movies about Great People. His Olympic career, meanwhile, ends up feeling like it was only included so that the film could squeeze some unearned emotion out of Jolie's use of stock footage of the elderly Zamperini at the very end. Unbroken manages the unique and dubious honour of feeling both almost entirely unemotional and crassly manipulative.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the film is that it tells the wrong part of Louis Zamperini's story. A post-script appears just before the credits roll which describes Louis' life after the war, how his experiences lead him to become more religious and drove him to forgive the men who physically and mentally abused him during his time in captivity. A story of a man coping with trauma and triumphing over it certainly sounds like it would make for a more worthy tribute to a great man than Unbroken's lukewarm inspiration and tired cliches.

Grade: C+