Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Unbroken (2014)

Even by the high standards of 'The Greatest Generation', Louis Zamperini stands out as a uniquely courageous indomitable man. A record breaking Olympic athlete in the Hitler Games of '36, a survivor of 47 days cast adrift on the Pacific Ocean, he then not only survived the brutal horrors of a Japanese POW camp but also sought to make peace with each of his former captors once the war had ended. 

Director Angelina Jolie with the real Louis 'Louie' Zamperini

It can be argued that they perhaps don't make men like Zamperini any more and suitably, in Unbroken, director Angelina Jolie delivers the kind of film that is seldom seen these days; a traditional, old fashioned three act Hollywood narrative that could have dated back to the immediate post war years and puts the audience in mind of such inevitable productions as The Bridge On The River Kwai and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. 

Naturally there are some flaws in this kind of storytelling. There's precious little light and shade in terms of characterisation here; Zamperini is saintly (I think his only badly behaved moment comes in the childhood scenes of him stealing, drinking liquor and peering up a girl's skirt) and strong of character whilst his sadistic chief captor Watanabe, known as 'The Bird', and played with ice cold, cruel fey menace by Japanese rock star Miyavi is all rage and pure evil until a kind of impotence is revealed in the face of his nemesis' defiance which reverberates even in the postscript when it is revealed that he refused to meet with a forgiving Zamperini years after the war. The scenes here between Miyavi and Britain's own Jack O'Connell as Zamperini in particular put me in mind of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence which saw Japanese officer Ryuichi Sakamoto become obsessed and fascinated by David Bowie's unbreakable POW. Characterisation is also an issue with regards to everyone else in the POW camp who serve as little more than screen filler to congregate around O'Connell looking both pained and in awe. 

It's also clear that Jolie as a storyteller has little interest in the first act of his story and too much of Zamperini's formative years is glossed over. The abuse he received at the hands of his fellow schoolboys for being an Italian immigrant, his impressive record as a high school track star and lastly his glory at the Olympic Games in 1936 all feel pretty rushed and lacklustre. It was as if she was itching to get to the scenes in the lifeboat and his internment in Tokyo. This is a real shame as these scenes could have been the groundwork to actually understanding Zamperini's character and investing some depth to the depiction of it. 

It's also a shame that Zamperini's last act was left untold as there was a great opportunity to explore the complexities of his post war life, his PTSD and his faith which led him to forgive the Japanese he was a prisoner of. It's similar territory explored in the recent film The Railway Man, but that too was rather flawed.

Whilst these are frustrating flaws and I can see them being a big bone of contention for some viewers, I actually like a good old fashioned Hollywood story and Unbroken delivers in that respect so it left me rather happy. Plus I'm a fan of Jack O'Connell and there's something that leaves you feeling rather proud and pleased to see him enter the Hollywood big league with this starring role. It's just a shame that some of his natural cheeky charisma is not allowed to shine here, but that should not detract from what is essentially a fairly strong and solid performance.

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