Thursday, December 25, 2014
It's an incredible story: High-school track phenom Louis Zamperini scores an incredible, come-from-behind Olympic victory in the 1936 German Olympics, breaking a record and earning a bronze medal before enlisting during World War II and, after a plain crash, survived 47 days on a raft at sea and a brutal stay in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It's a powerful, uplifting story, captures by Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 nonfiction book, and now adapted to film by Angelina Jolie. I can see why she chose this - it's a big, bold, patriotic story about the persistence of the human spirit in even the harshest of circumstances, a paean to excellence. It's also, unfortunately, a bit rubbish.
It's a fine line to walk with a story like this, in more ways than one, and Angelina Jolie simply is not a subtle enough director to handle it. Unbroken is a blunt film that badly wants to be inspirational - there's plenty of Christ-on-the-cross imagery to get the tear-ducts working, after all - but Jolie leans heavily on visceral violence to make her points, and what shocks the first time is a bit dull by the fifth. Jolie would have been better served spending her time differentiating the film's many interchangeable characters, making us feel a few blows instead of merely showing us many.
The film's biggest problem, however, is the straightforward nature of its biopic storytelling. In the first third, Louie begins racing and enlists in the military; in the second, he starves nearly to death on a raft; in the last, he gets relentlessly tortured by the Japanese. Which means that fully two thirds of the film is relentless misery, repetitive and simply shot. More extensive uses of flashbacks could have broken that up. More exclusive focus on camp life could have found some humanity in the lives of the POWs. Instead, we get a straightforward adaptation that never really finds the heart beneath the suffering.
The acting vacillates wildly. Jack O'Connell (300: Rise of an Empire) is reasonably solid as Louis, mostly tasked with portraying grim endurance, but Alex Russell as his older brother Pete is impossibly wooden. Indeed, all the flashbacks to Louie's youth are wooden, clumsy little slices of down-home Americana emptily aping the warm humanism of Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill. Miyavi's performance as the vicious POW-camp overseer known as the Bird has a sort of aristocratic charm, but he has very little to do beyond attacking, attacking, attacking. The tone of the film doesn't let most of its actors really cut loose, O'Connell and Miyavi excepted; otherwise, the only way to stand out is to fail.
Like The Passion of the Christ before it, Unbroken falls way on the wrong side of the torture-porn line. Jolie may have a decent film in her one day, but right now, she's too busy wallowing in human misery to let her art breathe. Unbroken has its redeeming qualities and it is handsomely shot, a classic middlebrow palette that mostly gets out of the way and lets its actors act, but make no mistake: Unbroken is not a good movie.