by – Branden Wittchen
Unbroken, the biopic directed by Angelina Jolie, tells the story of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete turned WWII bombardier who survived at sea and internment in Japanese POW camps. The film opens with a visceral aerial dog fight scene that is the most exciting scene of the movie, and one of the most exciting aerial combat scenes ever. The camera stays almost entirely inside the cramped and fragile airplane during the sequence. With the majority of the cameras focussed on O’Connell, the audience is placed in his shoes, feeling the excitement, the danger and the fear that Zamperini would have felt while navigating his way through a bomber plane being torn apart by enemy gun fire. To the credit of cinematographer Roger Deakins (best known for his work with the Coen Brothers), despite the ugliness of combat, a visually stunning and heart pounding scene is filmed with the choreography of the combat still comprehensible.
Through a series of flashbacks we are told Zamperini’s back story; a troubled rebellious youth overcome by finding his place on the track field. He goes on to break high school long distance running records and is sent to the 1936 Berlin Olympics to compete, where he breaks more records. Although the flashback scenes are beautifully filmed and performed, they are very predictable.
When we return to the present of WWII, Zamperini must break from his running training to set off on another bombing mission. With the men that survived the last mission – pilots Phil and Cup (Domnhall Gleesson and Australia’s own Jai Courtney) and gunner Mac (Finn Wittrock) – and some new crew members, they are sent off in a barely functional plane. They crash into the Pacific Ocean and the only survivors are Louis, Phil and Mac. Thus begins the most interesting part of the movie, which is unfortunately filled with flaws. Louis and Phil survive an astonishing 47 days at sea, with Mac sadly perishing on the 27th day. Their at sea survival is filled with the usual plot points: dehydration, survival, rationing issues, fishing, shark attacks, boredom and a loss of hope. There are even missed opportunities of being spotted by aircraft flying overhead, which made me question if anyone lost at sea in a Hollywood movie has ever been spotted and rescued by a passing plane. In the most predictable scene in the whole movie there is a shark attack framed almost exactly as a famous shot from Jaws. Filmed in the waters near Moreton Bay, these scenes give Roger Deakins’ cinematography room to shine. Unfortunately, his great camera work is somewhat overshadowed by typical scenes that we’ve seen in much better films such as All is Lost or Life of Pi.
On the 47th day Louis and Phil are rescued by the Japanese and taken as prisoners of war. It is during these scenes that Unbroken sadly breaks down. There are some issues with the way the Japanese are represented and the movie becomes rather repetitive. There is one silver lining to the third act of the film, the performance by Japanese pop star Miyavi as Mitsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe. Miyavi inflects this character with real pathos in a role that, in the wrong hands, could have been a one-dimensional villain. In one scene, we see him break down after beating Zamperini, a moment reminiscent of the representation of the mental and physical stress endured by both the torturers and the tortured in Zero Dark Thirty.
The film ends with a patriotic tribute to Zamperini as he returns to America to kiss the soil he loves, having survived the war. The screen transitions to photos of the real-life characters and the usual where-are-they-now blurbs so often featured at the end of biopics. I was delightfully surprised when an extra scene appeared prior to the credits featuring real footage of Zamperini. He returned to Japan to show forgiveness by running the Olympic flame at the Nagano Winter Olympics at the impressive age of 80. This final addition at the end of the film added a sentiment of forgiveness that was not seen anywhere else in the film. It did however also make me question the pomposity of America in forgiving the Japanese when making amends is a two-way street, especially when both sides committed horrible acts.
I really wanted this film to be a shining moment for Jack O’Conell, having been very impressed by his performance in the prison drama Starred Up. He does a good job but cannot compete with the virtuosity of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the scene-stealing performance by Miyavi in his first English speaking role. I also expected more from a script that was rewritten by Joel and Ethan Coen and based on Lauren Hillbrand’s bestselling book. Overall it’s a well executed and acted, poetically filmed movie that is predictable with questionable directing choices. It’s a good movie but, considering Zamperini’s amazing story, it wasn’t the great movie it could have been.