VOD film review: Unbroken
Ivan Radford | On 04, May 2015
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O’Connell
Watch Unbroken online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Rakuten TV / TalkTalk TV / Google Play / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes
Jack O’Connell is amazing. If you’ve seen Starred Up or ’71, you’ll already be well aware of this. Now, he goes through the wringer once again for another tale of intense suffering: Unbroken. The movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, tells the true story of Olympian Louis Zamperini, who is dealt tough hand after tough hand by life’s dealer, but comes out the other side… unbroken.
If the title is something of a plot spoiler, it also gives away the movie’s tone: far from subtle.
Louis starts his incredible life as a young tearaway, fighting blokes, eyeing up girls and drinking booze from milk bottles. He soon learns to tear away in another sense altogether: by running around a track. Guided by his older brother, Zamperini goes on to become an Olympic runner for America, breaking records and competing in Berlin.
So far, so inspirational. But the problem isn’t the story, it’s the way it’s told: all of the above is told to us in flashbacks, while Louis is stranded on a raft years later. Stuck there for 47 days, he and his crewmen (including a fantastic Domhnall Gleeson) struggle to survive. At one point, sharks attack them. At another, they eat raw seagull. Look at him eating puking his guts out! Jolie seems to say. Now look at that time he ran really quickly! And remember that time he was in a fighter plane that almost got shot down?
Delivered in a seemingly endless string of harrowing events, Zamperini’s existence descends into a Russian Doll of torture: he’s like a real life Jack Bauer, saying “This is the longest day of my life” on repeat. Then, just when you think things can’t get any worse, he ends up a prisoner of war in a Japanese WWII camp, where he’s tormented by the cruel chief (played with curious, wide-eyed naivety by Takamasa Ishihara, aka music star Miyavi).
Why is Watanabe so mean to his star prisoner? Their oddly homoerotic relationship could be the basis of a fascinating film in itself – and that’s largely the problem. Each part of Louis’ life is a satisfying, standalone narrative. Sandwiched together in laborious back-and-forths, it feels like a jumbled mess. The fact that four people all contributed to the screenplay only adds to the patchwork air. Individual moments grip, from the thrilling fighter pilot sequences to the scene where Louis must hold a plank of wood above his head for hours (complete with Christ-like iconography), but they also feel squandered and underdeveloped.
Jolie shoots the aerial stunts with aplomb and doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Louis’ wartime treatment, but the forceful reminders that Zamperini’s spirit isn’t crushed begin to grate: by the time you’ve seen him symbolically overtake a pack of other runners in the final lap of race for the nth time, you’ve got the message.
The result is a showcase for an extraordinary young man, who takes everything that’s thrown at him and still shines through. Unfortunately for Jolie, it isn’t Zamperini. Writers Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, P.S. I Love You’s Richard LaGravenese and Gladiator’s William Nicholson all line up to knock Jack O’Connell down, but he doesn’t give up, even when the movie’s at its most heavy-handed. “If you can take it, you can make it!” shouts his brother in one of the cheesy flashbacks. On the basis of this, O’Connell’s definitely going to make it.
Unbroken is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.