December 25, 2014


I'm a Stare Contest Olympian, too

Grade: C +
Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara and Finn Wittrock
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time 2 hr. 17 min.

The extraordinary true story at the heart of Unbroken, one that “must be told” according to the film’s ad slogan, is both its highest virtue and the albatross around its neck. The incredible life and times of Louis Zamperini (portrayed by Irish actor Jack O’Connell) is the sort of saga you couldn’t make into a movie unless it was bulwarked by truth. On the other hand, director Angelina Jolie hoists a hagiography that carefully traverses its phenomenal protagonist's Job-like tribulations, stepping lightly as if through a field of poppies it doesn’t want to tousle.

Popularized in a 2010 biography by author Laura Hillebrand, Zamperini’s odyssey begins with competing in the 5000-meter race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he places eighth but runs a blistering 56-second final lap. Following a linear line that the film eschews, Zamperini then joines the Army and, in 1942, survives being adrift for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean after his faulty B-24 crashed, killing eight of the 11 men aboard.

Barely subsisting off a diet of raw fish and rainwater, Zamperini fellow survivor Phil Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) are eventually rescued/captured by the Japanese Navy. They are tortured for military information, and Zamperini is eventually transferred to a POW camp, where he spends two years being subjected to the sadistic whims of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi, the Japanese pop star). Nicknamed “the Bird,” Watanabe uses his kendo stick to routinely beat Zamperini, and orders the weakened American to race Japanese guards for his amusement. After Zamperini refuses to become a radio turncoat for Japan, Watanabe lines up every prisoner in the camp and orders them to punch Zamperini in his face.

Zamperini’s courage is undeniable, and learning his remarkable story alone justifies seeing Unbroken. However, a visit to Wikipedia accomplishes the same goal, rendering Jolie’s biopic unwieldy and safe. The script is littered with easily recyclable platitudes like, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” and “If I can take it, I can make it,” which becomes the film’s anthem. The narrative is punctuated with flashbacks, most to Zamperini’s childhood in Torrence, Calif., where his Italian-American family’s experience with prejudice purportedly informed his steely resolve and forgiving disposition.

As if sensing the Oscar potential at play, Jolie concocts a esteemable stew of contributors—Roger Deakins’ provides the cinematography, William Goldenberg edits, the Coen brothers polish the script, Alexandre Desplat composes the ponderous score—whose prestigious yet disparate parts never coalesce into a cohesive whole.

Jolie deserves credit for acknowledging the role faith played in Zamperini’s survival (at one point promising to dedicate his life to God if he survives being lost at sea, a vow he eventually kept), But the director succumbs to turning her subject into a Christ-like figure, notably some heavy-handed Passion symbolism when Zamperini is forced to lift and hold a heavy wooden beam over his head for hours. Similarly, Jolie treats Zamperini and his fellow POWs—headlined by Garrett Hedlund—as a deified band of brothers, disciples devoid of any duplicity or hard edges; the closest we get is a glimpse of some GI Judases enjoying the good life in exchange for cooperating with Japanese propagandists.

Zamperini’s story is indeed one that must be told.  Unfortunately, Unbroken turns out to be a glossy echo chamber.

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