Cert: 15 / 137 mins / Dir. Angelina Jolie
It's comforting, at least, to know that there was once a generation (ie pre-1975) which wasn't inherently terrified of sharks. Stranded across two inflatable life-rafts in the Pacific ocean, the three servicemen in Angelina Jolie's new film Unbroken react to the sight of fins protruding above the surface in the way that you or I would to a wasp buzzing at the window. The audience winces at this new layer of imminent danger, whilst two of the stranded airmen try to repair punctures in the raft whilst the third one smacks a shark over the head with an aluminium paddle as if it had tried to steal a biscuit. Bravo.
It's this combination of stark danger and reserved practicality that best sums up the film, following 1936 Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini as he enlists to serve the allied forces during the second world war and ends up, as I've intimated, adrift in the ocean with two loyal comrades, three hungry sharks, and a dwindling chance of survival. Although rescue finally arrives, it's in the shape of a Japanese battle-cruiser, and Zamperini finds himself captured as a prisoner-of-war. And I don't know whether you've heard this or not, but the Japanese forces didn't have a particularly shining reputation in their duty of care towards their prisoners.
Unbroken's main strength lies in the performances of Jack O'Connell and Takamasa Ishihara, with fine support from Domnhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock and Luke Treadaway. Jolie's tight direction gets the best out of her cast without turning it into a pantomime (with the exception I'll mention in a minute), although the film does a better job of capturing the unending misery of the war, rather than the outright horror. From the blistering airborne dogfight with sepia-toned childhood flashbacks, to the quiet tension of the life-raft sequence, to the bloody-eyed despair of the Japanese POW-camp (the make-up and effects teams on top form here), each section is magnificent in its own way although I did often feel as if it was three films stitched hurriedly together. Whether this intentionally represents the fact that the war becomes everything in the lives of its combatants, or whether it's just a choppily assembled adaptation of the original book, I can't say. I'd hope for the former.
[ As a side-note, I have to say how impressed I was at the film's opening dogfight as we seem to have come full circle in terms of direction and editing. For the Death Star assault in Star Wars, George Lucas famously cut together a test-run from old war movie footage; the opening twenty minutes of Unbroken, in which a squadron of US bombers are attacked by ground and air forces against a sharp blue sky, looks for all the world like it could be from The Clone Wars. Bravo. Again. ]
So while the film certainly makes no bones about illustrating what Zamperini went through, I didn't get the impression that he was being singled out for much more 'punishment' than his fellow prisoners especially (I only mention this because that's how the film had been described to me). The treatment he receives is beyond harsh, certainly, but so was everyone's, and we obviously spend more time with Zamperini as it's his story. While it's clear that his Japanese officer nemesis Watanabe, 'The Bird', put Louis through the ringer, you still get the impression that he was an absolute arsehole to all and sundry, as and when he felt like it. In this respect, Unbroken almost becomes more about the POWs as a group, and that almost works in its favour…
…because it had all been going so well until the final twenty minutes, when the climactic stare-down between Zamperini and Watanabe is accompanied by silent, slack-jawed onlookers, a Spielberg-esque 'Music Score Telling You What To Feel', and is only one step away from a slow-hand-clap ending. The film layers on so much unnecessary, synthetic Cheese™, that I thought the US bomber which cruises victoriously overhead was going to be trailing a Dairylea banner behind it. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's so out of kilter with what's gone before it that it feels like last-minute interference from exec producers.
But as a whole, Unbroken is a far better film than its final reel, and the craft of the storytelling overcomes the hurdles of the Hollywood tick-boxes. I'm not even entirely sure the story needed to be told, but I'm still very glad it was. It's also head and shoulders above others in its class, and the only real issues I had with the film were just that: mine.
If you don't mind dampening your festive spirit with a gruelling, if uneven, true story, Unbroken might just be the film for you…
For the most part, although the childhood flashbacks don't make up the same percentage of the film as they do the trailer.
For the most part.
It tells Zamperini's story expertly; so in that respect, yes.
Other than the opening dogfight, you won't lose too much by watching this at home.
I will, but probably not for a while.
There isn't. FOR SHAME.
Will I get away with white-washing a milk bottle to surreptitiously drink gin out of while I'm at work?
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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