Come on, first the Koreans this week, now the Japanese?! Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson and Garret Hedlund star in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.
Cast of Characters:
Louie Zamperini – Jack O’Connell
Russell Phillips – Domhnall Gleeson
Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe – Miyavi
John Fitzgerald – Garrett Hedlund
Francis “Mac” McNamara – Finn Wittrock
Director – Angelina Jolie
Screenplay – Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese & William Nicholson
Based on the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Producer – Matthew Baer, Angelina Jolie, Erwin Stoff & Clayton Townsend
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
A former Olympian turned U.S. Marine, Louie Zamperini’s (Jack O’Connell) struggle for survival begins the day he and his fellow marines’ plane crashes in the Pacific during WWII. Only he and two others, Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock), survived the crash and are left stranded out on the ocean.
Forty-seven days later, they are captured by Japanese soldiers and held as a prisoners of war. There, in the camps, Louie endures through many hardships and tortures that would go on for the next two years.
This Christmas week, we’ve been given two films about the lives of two great Americans. A few days ago, I reviewed Big Eyes, which centered around the life of iconic painter Margaret Keane, and now we have the Angelina Jolie-directed Unbroken, which centers on WWII vet and prisoner of war Louie Zamperini.
It goes without saying that Zamperini’s (who recently passed away this year back in July) story is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Even beyond the war, it’s still impossible to not be moved by the struggles and eventual spiritual growth he went through after WWII ended. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s account of his life, Unbroken (which was written by four writers, two of which are the Oscar-winning Coen brothers) should be an inspiring and moving tale of resilience and survival. It’s unfortunate that the film comes up short.
Jolie delivers a solid first half, starting out with two exciting action sequences, one involving Louie and his men battling Japanese fighter pilots. Much like the tank battles in Fury, Jolie sets an effectively tight and claustrophobic atmosphere as she puts the viewer there in the midst of a B-24 bomber for each sequence. They’re both strong setpieces that showcase Jolie’s technical capabilities as a filmmaker.
However, it’s right around the second half, when Louie and Russell are taken captive by the Japanese, that Jolie begins to lose focus. From the moment we arrive at the prison camp, Louie is thrown through a gauntlet of beatings and tortures, one after the other, that merely feel like a checklist of events that occurred during his time as prisoner. That’s not to say what Zamperini went through should be overlooked. On the contrary, what he suffered through each day and the resolve he displayed amidst it has made him a man amongst us American boys and should be recognized. But in those moments, Jolie seems more concerned with what happened than who it happened to, and they just don’t resonate like they should, certainly not as well as earlier scenes involving Louie and two other marines stranded out at sea do. There’s rarely any character interactions within the camp (save a few scenes from Garrett Hedlund that don’t amount to much) that could’ve added some much-needed meaning to the suffering these men lived through each day during the war.
It’s not all Jolie’s fault, though, ’cause the script offers little in terms of character depth for its stars. Jack O’Connell is a talented young actor and he’s certainly gives his all here, but the humanity and emotion that should be there with his character is MIA. It’s hard for us to feel a soldier’s life is at stake when he’s portrayed like something superhuman or messianic (one climactic moment has similarities to the Stations of the Cross scene in The Passion of the Christ). On the flipside, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe comes off like a one-note villain, getting a brief throwaway backstory that goes nowhere other than to tease us with more depth than what we end up getting from him.
While well-made and beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Unbroken is a missed opportunity to really do justice to one of our most extraordinary American heroes. That’s not to say Angelina Jolie does Zamperini a disservice; she in no way can be faulted for lack of sincerity, and has moments where she shows potential as a director. Ultimately, though, the film lacks the emotional punch needed and instead opts for the obligatory melodramatic beats that often weigh down these inspirational biopics.
I give Unbroken a C+ (★★½).