Unbroken (2014)

12:19 PM

There’s a heavy partiality towards the superhuman in the word “unbroken”. It’s unscathed, whole, perfect, but with the suggestion of course that the unbroken was at one point, broken. Unbroken is a title I would give to a film about a boxing legend coming out of retirement for one last match, or a mountain climber solo-ing it up Mount Everest, or a terminal cancer patient who makes a miraculous recovery. It’s a very general term, unbroken, but it certainly inspires images of overcoming seemingly impossible feats. The heroism and strength is so engrained in that one, simple word. Unbroken as the title of Angelina Jolie’s second feature film, can’t be helped, having been based on a book of the same name about the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who suffered two years as a POW in a Japanese camp. What I do take issue with is the intact nobility implied in "unbroken", and similarly (because this ramble actually has a point), director Angelina Jolie’s tendency to lean heavily on tropes that try to echo those sentiments of heroism, but without lending much substance to truly fulfill them.

But first, a few words about our director. In the midst of storms of criticism and indifference towards the film and against Jolie, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a very well-made film, and as fun as it might be to slander the attractive-actress-turned-director, she commands more respect than that for this film. There certainly isn’t a lack of women directors, but there is absolutely a lack of attention being brought to them, and especially with someone as globally recognized as Angelina Jolie, I would hope that that sentiment is remembered above all else, even when denigration is the more fashionable option. 

All that being said, there are certain choices Jolie has made which bring the film down from great to just good. The first quarter of Unbroken is promising. It's so wonderfully shot and so compelling - it’s clear that Jolie really has an eye for action. The opening sequence of a crew aboard a fighter plane in the midst of an air battle is the most harrowing and best-laid scene in the film. We’re dropped into the cockpit, bullets raining down overhead, bombs exploding below, and Japanese fire coming straight at you.  Scenes of war by their very nature are chaotic and tense and are meant to be overwhelming, but what I appreciate about this particular sequence is its simplicity and its clean visual style. That aesthetic is held while still maintaining the unmistakable anxiety which builds up with every bang. Unfortunately, the remaining bulk of the film is overly sentimental and sadly formulaic. Where Jolie really loses direction is by leaning heavily on melodramatic tropes and clichés, and relying on carefully placed crescendos to inspire passion, rather than putting trust in her characters.

One scene in particular has Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) beaten and weak, but against all odds manages to hold a heavy beam above his head, much to the surprise and chagrin of The Bird (Takamara Ishihara), the Japanese officer with a sadistic streak and very personal dislike for Zamperini. The scene is meant to be the emotional climax of the film but unfortunately falls flat. Picture this: Zamperini stands in an empty yard, American POWs watching intently from the sidelines as he holds this tremendous weight on his shoulders. The Bird smirks at his struggle, knowing Zamperini can't possibly have the energy to hold the beam above his head. Zamperini teeters and we think he might fall, but he finds his balance again. Cut to nervous POWs. Then finally with a final surge of energy, he thrusts the beam skyward as The Bird's face falls, the very power draining from his eyes. The dynamic has shifted now from The Bird to Zamperini. Paint. By. Numbers. Jolie confidently tackles action, but skims over the spaces in between, far too trusting in her (not as fleshed out) ability to elicit an emotional response. 

There's so much stress on the idea of Zamperini being "unbroken", but the film gives absolutely no indication as to the driving force which makes him that way. Unbroken is pretty and polished, but doesn't have its own unique voice beyond that. 

Unbroken (2014)
Dir. Angelina Jolie
Starring Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamara Ishihara
137 mins | USA

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