There are some filmmakers/storytellers that carry a very cynical and cold vision when depicting people and their stories—filmmakers that are reluctant to get too close to their subjects so that a cornucopia of biased tenderness doesn’t consume them and birth a fully reverential (blandly extoling) tale about this particular subject. Angelina Jolie happens to have a different agenda, on the opposite end of this spectrum, and considering we know quite a bit about her after all these years already, the most accurate adjective I can give to her second directorial entry: “unsurprising.” Jolie has a very warm, sentimental, and hopeful attitude about her. In this case, I can’t confidently criticize her for overreaching on the sentimentality scale; the fact of the matter is that it gets tricky when one readies himself to review a true story. I, myself, can’t take that away from the film or Louis Zamperini who is an incredible human being that survived an unbelievably incredible life—from an impeccable runner representing the US in the Olympics to a soldier who’s stranded out in the middle of the ocean to a helpless prisoner in a ruthless Japanese internment camp.
This all sounds very well like an “Oscar-bait” kind of Hollywood motion picture, but again, it actually happens to be an insane true story. However, just because it’s true and oh-so-inspiring, it doesn’t mean that I can be easily swayed into absolutely admiring it. You can call me cold-hearted or you can just call me objective and hesitant. Admittedly, I don’t have the ability to question the exact accuracy of all the miniscule heroic, unrelenting details of Zamperini’s journey presented here, but I definitely can scrutinize the quality and appropriateness of its translation to the big screen. After this year’s earlier blockbuster, Maleficent, which shamelessly transformed one of Disney’s most horrifying villains into a sympathetic, compassionate caretaker, and now this total motivator, I have doubts that Jolie can commit to something that’s (much) morally grayer in her artistic pursuits. This film totally deceives you; while it presents us with truly disturbing scenes of torture and endless suffering (that almost becomes tedious in its uneventful repetition), Unbroken nonetheless sweeps you up from under your feet and tries to fill your heart with that final, last-minute dose of forceful effusiveness.
What compelled me to keep my eyes on the screen throughout honestly wasn’t the grandeur of the story but Jack O’Connell’s magnificently transformative performance as Louis—a performance that exhibits despair, satisfying confidence, mania, optimism, and sometimes even near-defeat. Obviously not on equal ground with the sheer courageous strength of the man he’s portraying, O’Connell still possesses his own strong-rooted (thespian) commitment that sees him losing a frightening amount of weight to bare bones less than mid-way into the narrative. The primary villain, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka “The Bird”), is played very eccentrically by Japanese musician Miyavi. Watanabe is the central prison guard with an interestingly feminine appearance along with that deceptive soft voice of his.
Of course, you can’t deny the utterly monumental nature of this story and its structure as you’re taken from one tremendously perilous and insurmountable predicament to another, from famished sharks to the desperate-to-win Japanese. The haplessness never ceases and only worsens. But “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” so it seems and only proves to be true once everything is said and done and a legacy has been made out of Zamperini’s adventurous lifetime. Some of the scenes here are almost too excessive in their long-winded suffering, seeming to drag on for too long, but it seems to be in the strength of the director to keep the pace and interest afloat. For instance, a scene that shows a group of people filing in a line to punch Louis real hard in the face for his misbehavior might seem like it’d eventually reach monotony, but the scene is edited and shot with impressive diversity (one shot focuses on Louis’ failing posture and another on The Bird’s fascinating expressions, and so on) to effectively maintain that drama. Another sequence, probably the best of the overall movie, sees an aerial battle as American soldiers, along with Louis, fend off fierce Japanese planes; it’s all executed with a staying sense of tension and intrigue despite the occasional slowing of the pace.
Now, on the other hand, the weakest link of the movie is surely its screenplay, which is unexpectedly disappointing considering that it was written by the Coen Brothers who, by the way, aren’t really known for their affectionate writing—so, a very odd and unrecognizable choice there. Unbroken is littered with saccharine, fortune-cookie inspirational lines (“if you can take it, you can make it,” guys!) and unrealistic dialogue. If you can make an inspiring movie that feels more natural and convincing than simply emotionally manipulative, or frankly emotionally/psychologically simplistic, then you have some undeniable talent. This film, however, plays it very safe and formulaically; this tale is about forgiveness, religion, idealism—hardly something that sounds like it could be a little more subtle and restrained.