If you showed Unbroken to a cinephile or critic without letting them know who directed it, odds are they would have a hard time identifying the name, but would clearly recognise it as a film strongly influenced by classic Hollywood war pictures. Especially in the early going, set on board an American bomber in a mission over the Pacific during WWII, the astute balance between no-nonsense action and the existential plight of young men in war together, gloriously lensed by the great Roger Deakins, is a throwback to the golden days of American studio cinema - and even reminded me of Michael Caton-Jones' sorely underrated Memphis Belle.
That initial half-hour is enough to confirm that, as a director, Angelina Jolie - for it is she who directs Unbroken - is a different beast from other actors who step behind the camera. Her little-seen but genuinely promising debut, 2011's In the Land of Blood and Honey, set during the 1990s Balkan conflict, already suggested she was genuinely interested in telling stories about the resilience of human emotion and spirit in tough circumstances, and was willing to use her clout to get this kind of projects made. For the follow-up, she adapts Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling chronicle of the life of American Olympic athlete Louie Zamperini, played by rising young Brit Jack O'Connell, focusing on his WWII service and his gruesome, grueling survival story.
After a rescue mission that ends with a crash in the ocean, Zamperini and two surviving crewmates spend over a month lost at sea with no food or water, only to be rescued by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner camp where the runner becomes the target for the ceaseless, sadistic bullying of commander Watanabe (Japanese singer Miyavi). The fact that he was a no-good son of Italian immigrants whose gift for running rescued him from a possible life of crime, and that his athletic achievements are skimmed over in the film's first act, though, seem to be of little or no interest to Ms. Jolie and her stellar but uninspired quartet of screenwriters (among which, yes, those Coen brothers).
Instead, his track career is a mere set-up for Watanabe's great yet petty pleasure in humiliating him at every given opportunity, leading to heavy-handed and all but unavoidable religious symbolism of Zamperini as a martyr who embodies the suffering and pain at the heart of any violent conflict. The pile-up of tragedies turn Unbroken into ultimately uninvolving, seen-it-before drama, entirely missing the forest for the trees - it wants to be such an inspirational tale that it thinks nothing of over-playing that hand, which it does to effectively numbing effect.
More's the pity because, at times, Unbroken reminds of other, better films that followed the paths this one chooses not to - the portrait of camp life under Japanese control as well-judged as Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, the strongly homoerotic currents thrown up by Watanabe's obsession with Zamperini intriguingly parallel to Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It's hard to imagine Ms. Jolie did not think of both films, since so much here suggests a clear storytelling intelligence and a genuine cinephile culture at work. That also makes it all the more disappointing that Unbroken fails to fulfill the promises of its first act and settles for being merely another WWII story, anonymously if handsomely made by what could pass for a director-for-hire but is in fact a smart director still finding her sea legs.
USA, Japan 2014
Cast Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock
Director Angelina Jolie; screenwriters Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard la Gravenese and William Nicholson; based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken; cinematographer Roger Deakins (colour, widescreen); composer Alexandre Desplat; designer Jon Hutman; costumes Louise Frogley; editors Tim Squyres and William Goldenberg; effects supervisor Bill George; producers Ms. Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff; production companies Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures Productions, Jolie Pas Productions and 3 Arts Entertainment in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened January 6th 2015, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)