Review contains mild spoilers.
Synopsis: After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. (Synopsis from IMDb)
Review: Based upon a true story, Unbroken is about the life of Lois “Louie” Zamperini. A former Olympic runner, Zamperini was a bombardier during World War II. While on a rescue mission, the plane malfunctioned and crashed into the ocean. Only Zamperini and two other crewman survived and were stranded for 47 days in life rafts in the middle of the ocean. Zamperini and Phil, the only other survivor, were eventually picked up by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-or-war camp. This should have been a phenomenal and emotional story about the durability of the human spirit. Instead, it is merely a good film. I do not regret seeing the film, but Unbroken lacks the emotional depth needed to be truly awe-inspiring.
The acting is wonderful, newcomer Jack O’Connell shines as Zamperini. He dominated the screen and I hope to see him in more films. Domhnall Gleeson also put in a great performance as Phil, the pilot of the crashed plane. And Takamasa Ishihara did a good job playing the sadistic prison guard. But the script was all over the place and the narrative did not progress in a linear fashion. The majority of the movie describes Zamperini’s experiences in the prisoner-of-war camp, but the narrative failed to establish the character first. Zamperini was a troubled youth who came close to going down a dark road. He was pushed to do competitive track-and-field and he channeled all his energy into running. This could have been an emotionally strong opening to the film, but it is barely mentioned. Zamperini goes from troubled youth to champion runner in ten minutes in the film and this shortchanged the character development. This robbed the audience of the opportunity to cheer on Zamperini as he struggles to set his life straight. Without this connection, his struggles in the prisoner-of-war camp lack in dramatic emotion.
In her second directorial outing, Angelina Jolie attempts to tell an epic true story in a stilted manner. War movies are difficult to make, there has to be a certain mix of backstory and action in order to create a dramatically emotional narrative. Unfortunately, this film feels more like a series of connected vignettes. After Zamperini and his crewmate are marooned in the ocean, the movie loses its pacing. There is an overly long montage of Zamperini and company slowly decaying in the elements. This montage could have been cut in half and still have maintained the poignancy. Extending it into a thirty minute ordeal really strips away the dramatic arc. The pacing just dies and never really picks up again. The scene where Zamperini is imploring God to save his life should have been highly emotionally charged, instead it fell flat. Also, the film should have explored the emotional anguish Zamperini felt when he was separated from Phil, it is never mentioned. The film should have been full of emotionally over-the-top scenes, instead it delivers subtle hints. Subtle emotional cues simply do not deliver. This film felt like a string of missed opportunities. I kept waiting for a scene to come along and drag me into the narrative, it never came
Perhaps the largest missed opportunity is in the characterization of The Bird, the Japanese prison guard. The Bird is supposed to be a highly dreaded and sadistic guard who forces his will onto the prisoners. For some reason he singles out Zamperini and put him through several incredibly harsh ordeals. However, the motivations behind the Bird’s motivations are never explained. He just appears to randomly single out Zamperini. A bit of backstory or even exposition into the Bird’s actions would have helped to explain the brutality. Also, the film does not explore what caused Zamperini to remain unbroken throughout this seemingly endless brutality. Despite the great performance by both actors, the script did not adequately create the emotional tension needed to resonate with the audience.
I think Jolie has the potential to be a great director, but her vision fell incredibly flat in Unbroken. During the film I kept thinking how the film would look if it had been directed by Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, or even Mel Gibson. The story needed a more experienced director to truly shine. Instead of walking away feeling inspired, I just went meh. There was great potential and the roles were excellently cast, but the pacing and lack of an emotional punch derailed the narrative. Zamperini’s story deserved the Band of Brothers or We Were Soldiers treatment.