Films about war generally fall into two camps. The first is the gritty, no nonsense kind that throw you into the horrors of war without trying to make any grander statement other than just simply showing the horrors that soldiers endure. The second is something of a more conventional flair, the classic Hollywood tale of brave soldiers who endure anything and everything in the name of gold old ‘murica. Unbroken, the latest directorial effort from Angelina Jolie is something of a mesh between the two, telling a tale of brutality and torture while also aiming to be an inspirational Christmas film preaching hope against impossible odds.
The story chronicles the harrowing real life journey of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an olympic athlete who finds himself thrown into World War 2. When a rescue mission over the ocean goes wrong, he finds himself hopelessly stranded on a raft with fellow soldiers Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac McNamara (Finn Wittrock) for over a month. They do get themselves rescued, but not in they way they’d like, thrown into a grueling Japanese work camp headed up by “The Bird” (Miyavi), a ruthless authoritarian with a lust for discipline by way of the stick.
It’s easy to look at Unbroken’s ultra-polished cinematography, swelling musical cues, and occasionally cheesy dialogue and dismiss it as a simple piece of oscar bait. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Jolie is using these techniques to make what could have been an utterly laborious exercise in brutality into a more entertaining and theatrical war tale. It’s a story told from the perspective of a war hero, glorifying his efforts to make for a richer tale to tell to the family each year, and as such, it succeeds from frame one.
The proceedings here are essentially divided into three extended sections. The flashback laced opening battle and resulting crash, the journey on the raft, and the internment camp. Each of these do a wonderful, if slightly blatant job of embracing Louis’ fear, drive, and fortitude, but the strongest is definitely middle. Here, we get one of the most suturing survival stories in recent years, with three men staring at death directly through their reflections in the ocean having to work together to learn how to survive the perilous conditions. Things definitely get a little more repetitive and slow once we hit the camps, as there’s only so much brutality we can see happen over and over again, but we never loose out connection with Louis, and that’s what matters.
That very connection is owed entirely to the performance of relative newcomer Jack O’Connell, who infuses Louis with fortitude, humanity, and humor in just the right spots. The moments where Louis becomes an inspirational figure work entirely because of the authenticity O’Connell brings, shepherding us into this world of intimidation and cruelty with great power. The supporting cast is just as solid, particularly Garett Hedlund as the pseudo-leader of the American soldiers in the camp, and Miyavi, who chews up every bit of scenery as a man who seems to get off on physical cruelty.
The movie does falter in a couple key story and dialogue areas though, surprising considering that the screenplay comes partially from the Coen brothers. While there certainly is a fair amount of good dialogue, some of it just seems like lines that would be good to put on a poster or in a trailer. Also, while there a quite a few lovely action beats, the climax of everything just feels a little cold and quick, which after everything we’ve been though with Louis is definitely a slight let-down.
The greatest surprise of Unbroken is it’s sheer entertainment value. Jolie’s direction and Roger Deakins’ camera work ensure that there is always something nice to look at, and the story (while certainly heightened from what the actual events likely were) remains suspenseful and engaging the entire time. There might be a couple cringes here and there, but ultimately, it’s a feel good movie that actually made me believe in the human spirit a little bit, and that is exactly what I believe Jolie set out to achieve.