I’m glad I got a chance to see Unbroken before this year’s Oscar nominations are announced. Pretty much every report I saw on it throughout the year talked about the film in term of its potential awards chances, or how it might be one of the best films of the year and such. Its release seemed specifically timed to be fresh in the memory of any critics making end-of-year top ten lists, and then just look at its subject matter. It’s a historical war movie, based on a true story about a courageous American triumphing over harsh adversity. It topped an amusing list by pajiba.com last year called the ‘Oscar bait ranking system’ (in which points were awarded in the form of ‘Sandra Bullocks in The Blind Side’). It doesn’t seem like the front-runner now, but may well get some Oscar love. I’m reminded of last year’s The Monuments Men, another fact-based war movie that was tipped for awards glory until its release was delayed. It limped into cinemas in February last year to mediocre reviews, and we can all say with certainty that it won’t be competing for any awards this year. I feel that had Unbroken been released at a different time of year too, no-one would be considering it one of the year’s best. I’m sure some people would think it irrelevant to begin a movie review talking about external elements like awards, but I disagree. Just as some big summer movies are tailor made to try and make as much money as possible, some winter ones are designed specifically to bid for awards, and they should be called out on it.
Its story is that of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a man who survived an ordeal so remarkable it’s almost hard to believe from a movie-watching standpoint. A son of Italian immigrants to America, he grows up to become an Olympic runner, competing in the 1936 Berlin games. He joins the air corps during World War II, and during a mission over the Pacific in 1943 his plane crashes into the Ocean. He and the two other soldiers are stranded at sea for many days before being captured by the Japanese army and sent to Prison camps. His life surely could have made for a riveting movie, but Unbroken is unfortunately not it.
The film is directed by Angelina Jolie in what is not actually her debut (apparently that was Bosnian War drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, which I don’t even remember being released). Her treatment of the material is rather pedestrian, opening with scenes of aerial combat that fail to really convey the danger of such a situation. The film then cuts back to show us how Zamperini was bullied as a child in a manner we’ve seen many times before.
Jolie’s assembled an impressive team of screenwriters to bring Zamperini’s tale to the screen, William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County) and most intriguingly; the Coen brothers. Seeing their names should be an instant sell for me but it’s worth remembering that while they might have as good a body of work as any modern filmmakers as writer/directors, their screenplays for others have rarely turned out well, the previous example being 2012’s terrible Gambit. Their unique voices are nowhere to be heard in Unbroken’s turgid screenplay, there’s not a single memorable character or line of dialogue that stands out.
One of the film’s central failings is that it skims over the most interesting stage of Zamperini’s journey; his time stranded at sea. After his plane crash, Zamperini and two other survivors have only two small life rafts to live on. They have to face the sun, try to capture whatever food and water they can, fend off sharks and dodge bullets from planes overhead. Their means of survival here result in all of the film’s best moments. I’m not saying there should have been a whole movie of this, but it feels to be dealt with rather quickly – the film is less than half-way through when they’re eventually captured.
The strength of the ocean-based sequences also serves to emphasise the monotony of what comes afterwards, which the film is primarily concerned with. Zamperini winds up in a Japanese prison camp overseen by Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (played by Japanese pop star Takamasa ‘Miyavi’ Ishihara). Watanabe is the typical sadist-in-power type, and takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, presumably due to his celebrity status. Watanabe is especially fond of hitting prisoners with the wooden stick he carries, something he does countless times. Jolie seems determined to spend as much time depicting the physical torture as she can, yet still fits them to PG-13 standards. It just becomes drearily repetitive.
O’Connell’s made a name for himself playing juvenile delinquents, something he’s done very, you might say alarmingly well in the likes of Eden Lake, Harry Brown, The Liability and last year’s Starred Up. Unbroken offers him his first chance to break that mould while raising his international profile. He dedicates himself to the role physically, you can see some of the pain Zamperini went through, and he’s likely to become a bigger star, but there’s not much of a character here. Unbroken is staged like an old-fashioned epic in several ways and this extends to the characterisations. The Americans are all nothing but courageous and heroic, and the Japanese nothing but evil, I prefer my war movies with a bit more moral complexity.
Like last year’s big awards movie 12 Years a Slave, Unbroken builds towards a known resolution and then ends with text informing us of the subject’s later years. As with Solomon Northrup, Louis Zamperini’s life after the war may have made for an appealing movie in itself. In fact it could probably have been used as an effective framing device, if Unbroken had been more interested exploring the story than just people being beaten with sticks. At the time of writing, it’s less than a day until the Oscar nominations are announced. I am curious if the academy shows some resilience to this typical awards fare for once and ignores Unbroken, as that’s what it really deserves.