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USA 2014
Directed by
Angelina Jolie
137 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Synopsis: The true(ish) story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) a US Olympic athlete who became a bombardier in World War II, survived 47 days in a runner dinghy at sea and internment in a Japanes P.O.W.  camp.

One’s got to wonder what goes on in the Pitt-Jolie household these days. First Brad casts himself as a Nazi-killing grunt commander in Fury, now Angelina directs a film about a bombardier who survives years of brutalization at the hands of the Japanese. Do they need an antidote to the luxury of their A-list Hollywood lifestyles?  Are they expressing the view from America’s ideological epicentre of a need for moral certitude?  The suspicion that such motivations are at play leaves one with strong reservations about both their film’s values (and value). Unbroken is, however, the better of the two offerings.

As a big budget production (surprisingly, scripted by Ethan and Joel Coen with Richard Lagravenese and William Nicholson) it is technically impressive, opening with an excitingly-staged aerial combat that introduces us to the resourceful Zamperini before flipping back in time to a fastidious recreation of his 1920s childhood as the errant son of Italian migrants.  Across the board, from the scenes of Zamperini and his fellow airmen lost at sea to his final bout of torment working in a Japanese shipyard loading coal, the production design is absorbing (one minor quibble is that after having survived the ocean crash Zamperini looks at a pristine photo of his family) with Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Alexandre Desplat‘s music binding everything together in a substantial whole.    

And yet as we know, top drawer production values do not in themselves make for a great film. Quite the contrary. As is so often the case, Jolie overwhelms the dramatic substance of the story with grand staging (including at one point a rather overly-CGI’d representation of the 1936 Olympics). Unbroken is splendid as a chronicle of Zamperini’s remarkable story of endurance but in contrast to that opening combat scene, it does not take us inside his fraught emotional world.  Whereas Jonathan Tepliztsky’s excellent The Railway Man (2013) which dealt with related subject matter made the central character's psychological ordeal palpable, Jolie plays Zamperini’s story on a purely mythic level and for the personal cost tacks on an end-title about post-traumatic stress.  Going at least one step too far, in the penultimate scene she invests him with a triumphal quality that plays like a scene out of The Greatest Story Ever Told or some such antique exercise in Christian hagiography (and concerning this, how could a near-starvation Zamperini lift the equivalent of a railway sleeper above his head?). As for the depiction of the Japanese it is almost bizarrely old school in its contrasting of them to the noble Allies, with the portrayal of relationship between Zamperini and his tormentor, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), recalling that between Jack Celliers and Caption Yonoi in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

Not altogether unlike Russell Crowe in The Water Diviner, Jolie takes a potentially powerful story and loses its particularity amongst the homogenizing conventions of Hollywood multiplex film-making. Which is a pity as it is clearly a project she cares about and one which we are better off for knowing.




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