Review – Unbroken (2014)

Unbroken_poster

Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Finn Wittrock, Takamasa Ishihara, Garrett Hedlund
Length: 137 minutes
Country: USA

Rating: 3/5

Unbroken is the much-hyped sophomore effort from Hollywood heavyweight Angelina Jolie and her first English-language effort following her Bosnian War-set romantic drama In The Land of Blood and Honey in 2011. To do justice to the incredible life of the recently-deceased Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini, Jolie enlisted the rarely-disputed talents of The Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson to adapt Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book of the same name. The lead role was taken on by a relative newcomer to the big screen: British actor Jack O’Connell.

Unfortunately, this epic war drama recounting Zamperini’s exploits from the Olympics, to being stranded at sea and eventually interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp falls short of its hype. Jolie’s close friendship with Zamperini prior to his death and her obvious admiration of him handicaps the film rather than helping it. There is a consistent lack of subtlety throughout the film as Jolie attempts to drive home the character’s value as an inspiration. Every single scene is intended as a demonstration of his heroism, meaning that the audience is taken through a series of snapshots narrating various events instead of being taken through his journey. While Jolie does show her potential for excellence in the future, she doesn’t seem to realise that many of her strengths lie in more subdued scenes, such as the death of one of Louis’ colleagues after over 40 days stranded at sea. At times, she relies too heavily on symbolism and sequences representing the emotions of the scene, which leads to a very hit-and-miss finished product. The overuse of elements such as slow-motion results in key moments losing much of their impact and others appearing contrived. Meanwhile, the cinematography is brilliantly executed by Roger Deakins, but certain shots once again serve to ram the message of the movie too far down the audience’s throat. Little is left to the imagination and we are too often being talked at as opposed to told a story.

Nevertheless, Jolie’s casting and direction has given the movie a few very promising performances. The film’s leading man, Jack O’Connell, carries the movie through the entirety, appearing in nearly every frame without ever losing the audience’s attention. However, despite the initial excitement for a possible Academy nod, this doesn’t look to be the film to grant him gold. While there is little doubt over his ability, O’Connell is insufficiently challenged by the material. Louis is a strangely underdeveloped character, showing little signs of independent thought towards the war and being almost entirely passive. He appears very one-dimensional in his strength and heroism, hardly faltering from the perseverance he was taught despite the horrors he endures. The majority of O’Connell’s work, although faultlessly executed, revolves around depicting Louie’s challenges rather than embodying the man.

Although their characters are both too underdeveloped to convey their significance to the plot, both Finn Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund put in stellar supporting performances as Francis ‘Mac’ McNamara and Commander John Fitzgerald, respectively. Wittrock manages to illicit both sympathy and anger in the audience as the more selfish and weakest of the three stranded soldiers in the first section of the film, while Hedlund manages an assured and wonderfully restrained effort as Louis’ mentor during their time at the prisoner of war camp and a surrogate for the former’s older brother, arguably the defining figure of his life.

The sole acting disappointment in Unbroken comes from its least seasoned performer, Takamasa Ishihara, as the film’s primary antagonist “The Bird”. The violent, sociopathic war criminal is possibly the film’s best written character as an embodiment of all the things that Louie must survive against, yet Ishihara’s performance is unfortunately too contrived to communicate his importance.

While Unbroken isn’t by any means a bad film, it is unfortunately a victim of its own hype. It shows immense respect for the life of Louis Zamperini, yet isn’t brave enough to explore his darker side and engage more with his character. Although no longer an Oscar contender, this film can be defined as a showcase of directorial and acting potential from Jolie and her cast of young, brilliant actors.

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