Based on true-life material and telling a remarkable story of physical and psychological strength during wartime, ‘Unbroken’ had previously been talked about as one of the potential heavyweights of the 2014-15 awards season… that was, before anyone had actually seen the thing.
Well, let’s just say the prospect of the film’s director, Angelina Jolie, being summoned to the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre in roughly three months time to collect her second Oscar seems about as likely as Nick Clegg marching into Number 10 next May for any reason other than to say “Cheery-bye, cherubs, I’ll be naffing off now” (or words to that effect).
‘Unbroken’ is Jolie’s second feature behind the camera, following little-seen Bosnian war drama ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’, and it tells the story of Louis Zamperini.
The son of Italian immigrants in California, Zamperini overcame a wayward childhood to excel at distance running, competing in the 5,000 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Seeing active service in World War II as a bombardier, he and his B-24 were downed over the Pacific in 1943. He duly spent 47 days adrift in a lifeboat before being captured by the Japanese and interned as a POW for a further two years.
Just from those few sentences and their amalgam of action and drama, glory and hardship, it’s easy to see why Zamperini would appeal to Hollywood – and indeed, Universal Pictures bought the rights to his story way back in 1956.
But after decades spent in the development hell equivalent of its subject’s Pacific Ocean drift, the film only finally surged towards production following the success of a 2010 Zamperini biography, also titled ‘Unbroken’ and authored by Laura Hillenbrand (who we have to thank for bringing that plucky nag Seabiscuit to the world’s attention. Like, ta muchly, Laura).
Jolie has gone on record as saying she sees Zamperini’s story as being about the endurance of the human spirit – which is fine and fair enough. However, when it comes to finding a cinematic phrasing for this message, she leans so heavily on movies gone before that ‘Unbroken’ too often feels like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from other directors’ offcuts.
The opening bomber scenes, with their posse of brilliantine-haired young heartthrobs all competing to see who can come across as simultaneously the most earnest and least convincing, are like some unasked-for ‘Memphis Belle’ reboot. The lifeboat survival saga can only invite inevitable comparisons with ‘Life of Pi’. The Japanese camp, meanwhile, recalls any number of prior dramas set in a similar milieu, of which Colin Firth-starrer ‘The Railway Man’ is but the most recent.
Had ‘Unbroken’ been made back in ’56, we would have got Tony Curtis as Zamperini. In 2014, the starring role goes to Jack O’Connell, the ‘Skins’ graduate who when measured using Jude’s second Law of Big Screen Ubiquity would probably be said to have enjoyed a mighty fine year indeed.
As you’d expect, O’Connell certainly put his everything into the role, dropping 26 pounds to convey the hardships suffered by Zamperini and even blacking out twice when shooting the plank-lifting sequence which has provided the movie’s main marketing image.
And yet the lifeboat scenes in particular really struggle to ever transcend the actuality of what’s going on: three young actors pretending to be stranded at sea. For all the hard work, research and preparation put in by O’Connell and his co-stars, they probably would’ve achieved no lesser degree of reality by pulling the scenario out of a hat in their improv class.
Like her young leading man, you can’t argue with Jolie’s genuine passion for the material or for Zamperini himself. When she learned he had fallen ill this summer (he died in July, aged 97), she apparently raced to his bedside to show him a rough cut of the movie on her laptop.
But just as that anecdote speaks loudly about her good intentions, it also offers an inadvertent but ultimately spot-on summation of ‘Unbroken’ itself: wholly well-meaning but at the same time utterly rigid with a sense of its own importance.
Unbroken is out in the UK on 26th December