REVIEW: Unbroken

21 12 2014

In terms of below-the-line talent on “Unbroken,” director Angelina Jolie assumes the role of Nick Fury by essentially assembling The Avengers of the cinema.  Every writer credited on “Unbroken” has penned an Oscar-nominated script.  Behind the camera as director of photography is Roger Deakins, cinematographer to great directors like the Coen Brothers as well as franchises like James Bond.

Those images are then spliced and joined together in the editing room by William Goldenberg (Oscar winner for “Argo“) and Tim Squyres (a consistent collaborator of Ang Lee who was Oscar nominated for “Life of Pi“).  And underscoring it all is Alexandre Desplat, the absurdly prolific composer for everything from “Philomena” to the “Harry Potter” series.  Essentially, “Unbroken” boasts what would be the ultimate fantasy squad if such a concept existed in Hollywood.

Rather than exuding passion for the craft, though, everyone phones it in. This dream team works in service of a rather bland and familiar inspirational story, and their respective skills do little to change that.  Instead of elevating the material, they are complicit with Jolie in playing it safe to ensure “Unbroken” plays to the least common denominator of audiences. They color by numbers when they could have been painting something truly inspiring and extraordinary.

The incredible true-life heroism and survival of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) has all the makings of a truly rousing film.  He had to triumph in the face adversity and anti-immigrant taunts as a child.  He funneled all that into the sport of track, which eventually took him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  Then, he survived for months at sea in WWII before getting captured as a POW by the Japanese.  These events give “Unbroken” quite a story to work with, yet the extraordinary feels rather ordinary.


The film might have been better off sticking to a strictly linear timeline instead of the clumsy structure the four writers erect.  “Unbroken” begins with Zamperini and his fellow soldiers carrying out an air raid on the Pacific Front, only then to briefly flashback to his youth without any discernible motivation within the story.  It does this twice at the outset and then never again.  While it is nice to have visuals of the protagonist’s past, a few lines of dialogue here and there could have easily conveyed this background information.

“Unbroken” proceeds to its most impressive section, Zamperini and two officers’ remarkably dogged endurance on two life rafts after a faulty plane breaks down over the ocean.  The passage of time becomes harrowing through some expert makeup work that makes their pain visible.  Their skin is scorched red and blistering, and their lips are chapped to the point of emaciation.  Obviously, Zamperini will survive, but the fates of his companions provides a small morsel of suspense.

The bulk of the film, however, chronicles his extended stay at the POW camp.  There, Zamperini is a favorite target for sadistic punishment from a bratty, entitled Japanese sergeant known as “The Bird” (Miyavi).  Time seems indefinite in this section, which drags on from lashing to lashing with little else to move it forwards.  Little tension builds between Zamperini and his captors, too.  Miyavi aims for an Amon Goeth from “Schindler’s List” with his rage but winds up looking like he has menstrual cramps.

All these segments are fine individually, sure, yet they do not add up to anything that transcends their mere occurrence.  The wisdom of “Unbroken” has all the depth of a phrase found inside a fortune cookie.  The film provides further proof that there are no atheists in a foxhole, although the evidence is little more than a few phrases scattered throughout the proceedings and an ending title card.  It reaffirms the widely-held belief that trials in life only strengthen our character, but that message is a fixture of culture from Nietzsche to Kanye West.  While Jolie clearly possesses a great fondness and admiration for Zamperini’s story, she never enables it to soar at the heights which it deserves.  B-2stars



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