It’s another Christmas at the movies as we see more than a few Oscar-bait films marched out for audiences’ (and the Academy’s) approval. It’s a tight race this year as Tim Burton’s Big Eyes and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper are on the bill. Also among them is Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. All three films are based on true stories but only one tugs on the heartstrings of World War II nostalgia.
By it’s ad campaign, Unbroken is heralded as a celebration of a true American hero that perseveres against all odds. Based on the nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand titled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the film recounts the story of former olympic runner and war hero Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash in the Pacific theatre, spent 47 days adrift on the ocean in a tiny life raft and was eventually captured by the Japenese Navy and incarcerated for two and a half years in various Prisoner-of-War Camps. There’s no denying that this is a tale of true hero that Americans should be proud of and should look up to as an honest representation of courage and strength. When it comes to the question of “Was this the strongest representation of his story?”, that’s where things get a little less clear.
The true high point of Unbroken lies in its casting. British actor Jack O’Connell is instantly believable as Zamperini. You feel for his character in both triumph and defeat. You’re enthralled with his drive to not give up. His performance hits all the right notes as he portrays the character as both earnest and confident. There’s a look in his eyes that says, “I refuse to quit.” It’s there for almost the entire film. The conviction of Louie Zamperini is alive in O’Connell.
And his isn’t the only strong showing. Both Domhnall Gleeson (as Pilot Russell Allen Phillips) and Takamasa Ishihara (as Mutsushiro Watanabe, the commanding officer of one of the POW Camps) give fantastic performances that back up and play off of O’Connell’s Zamperini nicely. From Gleeson we get a very reserved take that says more through body language and eye movements than any of his lines. You can feel the instant camaraderie between Phillips and Zamperini as they take on some pretty bad times lost at sea. Ishihara has a much more active role as he’s the closest thing in this film to a traditional antagonist. Watanabe sees a kinship in Zamperini and even though he is vicious and cruel in his treatment of the former olympian, believes in his heart that the two have a bond. It’s a very difficult balance to convey but Takamasa is effectively convincing in his portrayal.
These are the highlight performances of the film but not one person is miscast. Each and every actor appears competent in their presentation. Even Jai Courtney, who has spent the past few years serving up a number of hollow performances in action films better left forgotten, is used perfectly as Hugh ‘Cup’ Cuppernell, the cocky and sure fire co-pilot in Zamperini’s flight crew. The cast shines through the problems of the film, of which there are a few.
Unbroken‘s running time clocks in at 2 hours and 17 minutes, not uncommon for films these days, especially in the dramatic genre. The problem lies in the movie’s pacing as it feels more like a 3 hour and 17 minute film. There are a number of moments where the story lingers, wasting its time by driving home a point already made. The middle of the film focuses on the time spent adrift on the Pacific after the plane crash. I’m not sure the exact number of minutes shown of Zamperini and the two other surviving crew members baking in the sun and praying for rescue. I know it felt like over a half hour. I could be wrong but that’s what it felt like. There was a definite need for tightening all around but in that sequence in particular. There’s only so much you can do before it feels like you’re rehashing story beats dealing with a lack of food and water.
There are also a number of scenes in the POW camps that are just repeating the same beat. There’s a lack of progression in the film and while I do feel it’s an intentional choice to drive home the experience of being in a place you fear you’ll never be free of, it crosses the line rather quickly into mundane repetition.
The film also suffers greatly from a lackluster ending. The viewer knows going in that the end of the film will most likely involve the end of the war but there are ways around leaving us with just that. Jolie makes an attempt at this by showing footage of Zamperini in his early 80s, carrying the olympic torch for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. While this footage is fitting, it isn’t the true denouement we are looking for. Just before the final credits, a paragraph of information is presented regarding a promise that Zamperini makes while captive and how he fulfilled that promise after the war. Instead of a blub of text on the screen, why not shoot a scene representing the fulfillment of that promise? Instead, we get a story that feels unfinished. The movie just ends and while you are amazed at the determination of this real life hero, you don’t get to truly rejoice in his triumph. Perhaps if the film was given a swifter pace in the earlier acts, there would be time for a more fitting end.
While the actors involved each gave stellar performances and are deserving of much praise, Unbroken suffers from it’s slow pace and repetitive story beats. I don’t know if I would be interested in every watching this film again. While certain points are uplifting, there are more moments of boredom then one would expect. Unbroken opens on Christmas Day in select theatres across North America.
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