This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete, who, during his time serving in the frontlines of the second world war, survived a plane crash that killed most of his unit, only to spend over a month stranded at sea, before being “rescued” by the Japanese navy who transferred him to spend the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp under the heel of a particularly sadistic Japanese officer.
What we thought
At only her second turn in the director's chair, Unbroken once again proves Angelina Jolie to be a very fine filmmaker with a good visual eye and an even stronger storytelling sense but, like her début feature In The Land of Blood and Honey, it eludes greatness and never quite lives up to the worthy story it tries to tell.
And, frankly, it's kind of hard to see why.
It has a fine cast, led by the quite excellent British up and comer, Jack O'Connell; it tells a remarkable true story of survival among seemingly impossible odds; it features a script by, among others, no less than Joel and Ethan Coen and, again, Jolie herself clearly knows what she's doing behind the camera. So why oh why does Unbroken resolutely fail, in even its very best moments, to be anything more than pretty good?
One of the biggest criticism lodged against the film has been around the fact that it concentrates too much (perhaps even too leeringly) on the more gruelling aspects of Zamperini's extraordinary story when they only formed a very small part in a much larger story. This may well be true, but as I was entirely unfamiliar with his story when I saw the film, it obviously had no impact on my lukewarm reaction to the film. More than that, the story that Unbroken does choose to tell is still pretty powerful stuff of the war-is-hell-variety so even if it doesn't live up to the book, it should still be more than able to stand on its own.
It's also certainly untrue that what is on the screen lacks any sort of power. I often found the film very difficult to sit through but considering the hardships that these characters go through, I could hardly think of a more appropriate response. There is, as you may well expect, redemption at the end of the film and there are moments where the triumph of the human spirit is on full display, but most of the film is a fittingly tough slog through what is unquestionably an exponentially tougher period in the life of a man who is extraordinary precisely because he is so ordinary.
Still, even considering its lack of fidelity to the original text, so to speak, and that it's a film that's easier to admire than really enjoy, it still should be way more admirable a piece of work than it ultimately turned out to be.
When you get right down to it then, the reason that the film is a relative disappointment all comes down to its script. Yup, the script that comes from the mind of two of the very best script writers working today. What has apparently happened is that Jolie or one of the film's many producers and moneymen brought the Coens on board to polish the existing screenplay by two rather less impressive but still quite accomplished writers (William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese) but were told to leave behind the very things that make them the idiosyncratic creative geniuses that they so very clearly are.
This is so obviously the case because not only is the film entirely bereft of any of the Coens' quirk and razor-sharp wit but it's also equally lacking in any of the Coens' inventiveness and originality. Unbroken feels very ordinary, very derivative and generally lacking in anything to really set it apart from the pack. Calling the film little more than a mashup of Life of Pi with The Bridge Over the River Kwai by way of The Railway Man might seem reductive but it's closer to the truth than I'm sure most of the people involved would like and the fact that it's ultimately less than the sum of its parts doesn't exactly help matters either.
Jolie will most probably make a great film at some point – she's too talented not to – but Unbroken certainly isn't it.