‘Unbroken’ Review: Survival of the Fitness
Some movies are great, and some movies are thrusting greatness upon you. Angelina Jolie’s second film behind the camera is a bit more of the latter. Unbroken has been produced with an impeccable eye for grandeur, and it tells a truly remarkable real-life story of survival against impossible odds. Unbroken certainly bears a passing resemblance to what some critics might call “a triumph of the human spirit.” It just never actually plays like one.
Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is an Olympic athlete turned World War II bombardier. Already, that’s a pretty interesting story. But it’s almost as though fate desperately wanted to screw with him. Zamperini’s plane is shot down over the Pacific Ocean and he spends over two months adrift at sea with his fellow survivors, fighting sharks and keeping up morale by reciting recipes for homemade gnocchi like they were ancient legends.
That’s a pretty interesting story too, but wait! There’s more! When Louis Zamperini is finally rescued, it’s not by the Allies. He spends two years getting tortured in a POW camp by a Japanese war criminal whose prisoners call him “The Bird” (Miyavi). And somehow, through sheer force of will, through all of this cruel circumstance, Louis Zamperini never accepts defeat. He is… pretty damned difficult to break.
Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini with a likable combination of dashing cockiness, uneasy hope and eventually morose determination. You really get the sense that this is a man who endures this hardship not because it’s a foregone conclusion, but because it is almost impossibly difficult. He never seems to get off on the harsh physical and mental challenges life has in store for him, but he is always willing to confront them directly. In a story about overcoming consistent persecution it’s a tricky accomplishment for an actor: to make all of these challenges look excruciating and yet somehow still possible to weather.
But the problem with Unbroken is that Jolie has paced her film like a marathon, and not so much like a story. Zamperini’s goal is simply to survive, and although his circumstances do change he makes little effort to change them himself. Granted, he is stranded on a lifeboat and granted, he is trapped behind enemy lines. His fate has more or less been sealed for him and his only realistic course of action is to simply outlast the war. Asking any more from Zamperini would be, at best, extremely rude, and at worst, grotesquely inhuman.
And yet without dramatic crescendos, subplots, reversals, revelations or even a consistent supporting cast with stories of their own, a journey of undeniable greatness can still feel like it’s taking place on a flat road that goes on forever. Unbroken essentially keeps pace for most of its 137 minute running time, and although it’s easy to admire Zamperini for making it through to the end, a film that never quite hits its stride doesn’t sell his accomplishments as effectively as they deserve.
Unbroken never loses sight of the dignity of Zamperini, and it never quite succumbs to over the top hero worship either. Angelina Jolie’s film seems to have the utmost respect for this man and his harrowing life story, and the incredible cinematography from Roger Deakins does wonders for Unbroken’s sense of oppression and scale. But the script relies so much on Zamperini’s determination that it never capitalizes on the many dramatic uncertainties that might have turned his story into a timeless nail-biting classic, as opposed to a solemn, respectful salute that lasts more than two hours. And two hours of saluting even the most deserving of heroes is enough to make anyone want to check their watch.