Unbroken’s focus on suffering misses the mark


Unbroken’s focus on suffering misses the mark: review | Toronto Star
By: Peter Howell Movie Critic, Published on Wed Dec 24 2014

In telling the story of an Olympian runner turned heroic Second World War survivor, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken focuses on overcoming adversity at the expense of almost everything else.

   Unbroken  ★★☆☆

Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Miyavi and Garrett Hedlund. Directed by Angelina Jolie. Opens Dec. 25 at GTA theatres. 137 minutes. 14A

“The salvation of man is through love and in love,” wrote Second World War concentration camp survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, a celebrated 1946 memoir and therapeutic journal.

Frankl found he could transcend horrific suffering by concentrating on memories of beloved friends and family. His highly readable account ennobles and transfixes.

It’s quite different, in other words, from what Angelina Jolie is doing with Unbroken, her well-intended but one-dimensional account of wartime stoicism, adapted for the screen from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 biography of the same name.

For Jolie, it’s all about the suffering, without much meaning. Zamperini’s postwar religious works, which indicate he transcended his pain by promising to serve God, get little more than a tangential mention.

In telling the story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympian runner turned heroic Second World War survivor of air, sea and land traumas, she has chosen to focus on overcoming adversity at the expense of almost everything else.

It makes for a very tough film to sit through, despite its obvious sincerity toward both its subject and its desire to reap Oscar ambitions.

Jolie’s intentions are telegraphed right from the beginning and throughout the film, from the preacher who counsels “Accept the darkness, live through the night, love thine enemies” to the brother who sloganeers, “If you can take it, you can make it.”

No question that Zamperini, the scrappy American son of Italian immigrants who died this past summer at the age of 97, just as Jolie was locking her film, makes for a most compelling and sympathetic subject. And O’Connell does him proud, demonstrating the grit and steel of a man who had to fight not just to succeed but simply to survive.

An Olympic runner in the 1936 “Hitler Olympics” in Berlin, who became an ace U.S. air force bombardier when war commenced, Zamperini survived being lost at sea for 47 days after being shot down over Japan. He later spent two years in a PoW camp at the hands of that same Asian enemy.

With a subject this fascinating, along with Roger Deakins as her cinematographer, Alexandre Desplat as her composer and Joel and Ethan Coen assisting with the screenplay, Jolie has ample material for a film that truly would deserve Oscar laurels.

Yet she’s delivered a film that is strangely bereft of real drama, apart from a thrilling early sequence in which O’Connell’s cumbersome B-24 bomber does battle with nimble Japanese Zero fighters, winning the skirmish but losing the argument with gravity.

The plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean, leaving Louie stranded with two life rafts but not much food and water, in the company of his pilot, Capt. Russell Alan “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and tail gunner, Sgt. Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock).

The clock ticks grimly on as the men struggle to subsist on what few fish they can pull out of the ocean, including a shark Zamperini punches into submission.

The situation could hardly get worse, except it does. When rescue finally comes, it’s in the form of brutal Japanese soldiers and solitary prison confinement.

Zamperini is singled out for special abuse from the PoW’s most sociopathic official, a Japanese army sergeant known as “Bird” (Miyavi), whose antipathy toward Louie seems based solely on eye contact he doesn’t appreciate.

The rest of the movie is an exercise in adversity for the audience, too, as Jolie subjects the viewer to relentless torture scenes. Where other directors might have used judicious edits to show a scene where Bird punishes Zamperini by forcing his fellow PoWs to punch him in the face, one at a time, Jolie insists on letting it all roll out, almost in its entirety. Punishing overuse of close-ups makes the watching all the more difficult.

On another occasion, Jolie seems curiously unaware of the exertion expended. Following the race at the Olympics where Louie set a record for final-lap speed, he’s shown with nary a drop of sweat on his body or brow.

There’s no question that Unbroken is a major step up in ambition, scope and achievement from Jolie’s 2011 directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey.

And there’s no denying her interest in Zamperini and her desire to do right by him in telling his story. Yet in concentrating so much on his suffering, rather than what meaning he drew from it, she’s left Unbroken in fragments.