By Ben Winkley

This is what all the fuss was about. Unbroken — a by-the-numbers war film — is the project Angelina Jolie sacked off Cleopatra for, a move that so vexed the good people at Sony.

And it’s easy to see why she was tempted out of Liz Taylor’s shoes. Here’s the true story of an American Olympian who had a shudderingly bleak Second World War. He spent 47 days adrift in a lifeboat after his plane ditched, and saw out the war in a Japanese prisoner camp overseen by a sadist.

Louie Zamperini’s back story, told in flashback while he drops death on Japanese positions from his bombadier eyrie somewhere above the South Pacific, is a great American tale. From a humble background in upstate New York, Zamperini ran himself into the team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he found himself alongside Jesse Owens amid Leni Riefenstahl’s choreographed propaganda.

From then (forgive me) Zamperini’s story becomes one of the triumph of the will. Adrift in a dinghy with ‘Phil’ Phillips (a decent Domhnall Gleeson), reduced to eating raw fish and curious albatross while fending off sharks and stray Japanese fighter planes, this is the best part of the film, where the claustrophobia of inflatable existence is placed in stark contrast with the vast expanse of nothing around them.

But life for Zamperini just gets worse when the two are picked up by the enemy navy. And for the audience, this is where Unbroken unravels. The brutalising camp commander (played with a menace that occasionally veers uncomfortably close to sneering stereotype by Takamasa Ishihara) may be historically accurate but, like the scene where Zamperini’s plane crashes because of lax maintenance, wider issues about dehumanization and the expendability of life are brushed aside in favour of the familiar one man’s struggle against the hell of war.

As Zamperini, Jack O’Connell adds another bit of sparkle to his fast rising star. Whether a square-jawed all-American tough of the track, an emaciated, near-lunatic castaway or a cowed, heroic internee, O’Connell convinces and even manages to imbue the fairly dire script with some feeling.

And here’s a thing. Some big hitters have lined up behind Unbroken — screenwriting credits include no lesser names than Joel and Ethan Coen — so it’s disappointing that they’ve come up with such hackneyed dialogue.

And while the Coen’s long-standing director of photography, Roger Deakins, delivers a high-quality gloss, the flaw that undermines Unbroken is Jolie herself.

For Unbroken is a war-film-by-committee. It’s a grab bag of themes and scenes familiar from such previous skirmishes as The Bridge Over The River Kwai, The Wild Blue Yonder, even 80s tv prison drama Tenko – and is history as taught by the Spielberg school.

There is not one moment in Unbroken that suggests Jolie has a singular directorial vision, not one scene, character or line of dialogue that delivers a new angle on war in general, or the Pacific theatre in particular.

So the Americans thrust out their jaws, the British prisoners say ‘chaps’ a lot, and the Japanese are, of course, inscrutable.

And Unbroken is influenced, undoubtedly, by one director above all. In a delicious Hollywood irony, that renowned liberal humanitarian Angelina Jolie has taken her cues from that old reactionary Clint Eastwood, with who she worked on Changeling. But Unbroken has the look, feel and sentiment of a film made by someone who’s watched Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers, but skipped Letters From Iwo Jima.

Louie Zamperini was a brave, unfortunate man, but his remarkable story is reduced by some leaden direction and a lumpen screenplay to just another off the shelf war movie.

 

 

 

Movie Review: Unbroken
2.0Overall Score
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