60%Overall Score
Reader Rating: (2 Votes)
45%

The disappointing result of an unbelievable tale of struggle and strength squeezed poorly into one empty, cliché-ridden product

 

The unbelievable story of Torrance’s Louis Zamperini is told astonishingly well by author Laura Hillenbrand, who gathered a staggering amount of details and took her time to tell the story properly and completely. The result is a book of unbearable hardships overcome by a want to survive that rivals any true-life story read or heard in generations. This written-word medium makes it possible to understand the full timeline of events Louie went through. Sadly, we can now be sure the same story cannot well be told in film form, at least not in this rendition by actor/director Angelina Jolie. As a huge fan of Hillenbrand’s book, I am incredibly disappointed in the end result of a production that harnesses so much talent behind the camera. Between that talent and the quality of the book, there’s so much wasted potential in this project, it’s almost dizzying.

 

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a Californian of Italian descent who took the world by storm during the 1930s and 1940s, when he went from rotten hoodlum kid to Olympic runner for the USA. After that, he joined the army to fight in WWII. His miraculous journey continues as his bomber plane is forced to crash into the sea and he, along with two others in his crew, were stranded at sea for 47 days before being found and captured by the Japanese. He was held as a prisoner of war, where he endured endless torture and abuse from an infamous general at the camp nicknamed “The Bird,” until its eventual liberation at the end of the war. The story is long and exhausting, and told incredibly well in Hillenbrand’s book, but Jolie simply did not get any of that magic with the film. In fact, the whole film appears more as a well-shot Lifetime movie than a Hollywood production.

 

Among the talent behind this production is respected actress-turned-director, Angelina Jolie, a script written in part by the enormously talented directing duo, the Coen brothers (among a couple others), and arguably the greatest cinematographer working today behind the camera, the great Roger Deakins. Of all these people, it is Deakins who churns out the best work, as usual. The film is beautiful, with lighting that rivals anything else this year, and the shots are varied enough to give the film a photographic identity. The beauty of the scenic WWII backdrops and locations are harnessed very well and keep attention throughout the entire 137-minute run time. In other words, the casual Deakins fan will be able to recognize him behind the camera.

 

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Unfortunately, Deakins is about the only legend that gets it right in this case. Unbroken is director Angelina Jolie’s second film behind the scenes, after In the Land of Blood and Honey in 2011. She has proven herself to be a slightly adequate director who fails to inject soul into her works. There’s just nothing exciting or memorable about Unbroken. Yes, a story like Zamperini’s is special, and we’ve never quite seen a tale like his on film. One thing we have seen is a wealth of movies containing similar situations to the ones he was in, and most of those have more soul than the scenes in Unbroken. There’s just no other way to explain the film other than soulless, and maybe dull. The way it is directed takes away any impact the events Louie goes through to the point where everything just happens. The image of somebody being mercilessly beaten by a crazed lunatic should have a deep effect on the audience, but does not here. Unbroken is lacking in many other ways as well. The script by the Coen brothers doesn’t help at all, and that is an even bigger letdown. They direct most of the films they wrote; there are few styles more distinctive than theirs. A script so riddled with “you must believe in yourself” clichés written by them is shocking to the point of being offensive. However, the more casual filmgoer may not enjoy the story for what it is, but I couldn’t help but be stunned with the end result. Even the score, composed by incredibly consistent composer Alexandre Desplat, is so weirdly manipulating and oddly placed that it’s distracting, coming in at strange moments and sounding far more epic than what we’re watching. The directing and writing proves  a towering story like Zamperini’s can’t be compressed into a film barely over two hours, or at least not one directed by somebody like Jolie.

 

On the bright side, the acting is well done. Newcomer Jack O’Connell plays Zamp himself, while Domhnall Gleason plays fellow crewman Phil, along with Finn Wittrock as Mac and Garrett Hedlund as Fitzgerald. Everybody does a fine job, but it’s clearly O’Connell’s show. Despite being a relative newcomer, he has the face and voice of a 1940s film star, so he blends in perfectly. Given the journey he takes, the role is a sublimely physical one. Admittedly, the role was not nearly as physical as it should have been. The glorified “Lifetime” action doesn’t do the actual events any justice. Watanabe, “The Bird”, is played by Takamasa Ishihara, and his acting falls flat. Something about the character in the book comes off as strikingly more menacing than what we get in the film. Obviously it isn’t helpful or wise to compare the book to the screen, but the film makes Ishihara’s “infamous” character out to be less intimidating and completely sadistic than he was in real life.

 

Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is the work of tremendous talent not properly harnessed to produce the best product possible. It suffers from a strong lack of identity that should make such a harrowing tale actually harrowing. Instead, it comes off as a lackluster story of survival that is, dare I say, pure Oscar-bait. The Academy will no doubt eat it up, but there is clearly less substance than meets the eye. It is an unfortunate case of hoping the incredible source material can supply enough of a film by itself.

 

The good: Deakins’s photography is, as usual, stellar and Jack O’Connell will surely be a force to be reckoned with over the coming years.

The “Meh”: The directing and writing are completely uninspired, and produce little bang for the buck.

About The Author

Steve Carley

Steve Carley is a Michigan-born lover and resident of the film industry in Atlanta, Georgia. When he's not infiltrating the nearest Waffle House or giving up on the most recent movie-adapted book he can be seen lounging in his apartment complex's pool and regretting the way he wrote his Film Takeout bio.