One of the biggest problems in Unbroken – and trust me, there are many – is that director Angelina Jolie and presumably her screenwriters (which include the Coen brothers and Richard LaGravanese) assume a sort of WWII shorthand with audiences. The central character of Louis Zamperini isn’t much of a character at all, but merely a vessel with which little is done yet with whom we are immediately meant to resonate with because he is a) American, b) handsome, and c) the lead character in the movie. Despite being played by the talented Jack O’Connell – so good in Starred Up and ’71 – the character is fairly interchangeable with all of the other young, handsome males of the cast (which includes Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Alex Russell, and Luke Treadaway. The role likely could have been played by any of those actors, too, and not been any different. Louis Zamperini at times feels like a supporting character in his own story and I guess it was just because he wrote a book about his experiences that they made the film about him and not one of the other equally resilient characters. Certainly, in her desire to make this character as above-average as possible, Jolie pads the runtime with the film’s most laborious and unnecessary passage wherein Zamperini competes in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn’t win a medal, but it’s presumably shown to prove how much of the Human Spirit he has within him.
And, oh boy, is the Human Spirit alive and well in Unbroken. The entire film’s purpose appears to be to bask in the glow of this man’s Human Spirit. The cinematography of Roger Deakins even mimics this glow by positively roasting the actors in hideous Olympic-golden hues that appear to have been overly rendered in post-production to the degree that nothing quite looks real. It’s a visual concept that is as treacly as the material, slopped on thick like maple syrup. At least one can give the film points for consistency as this humdrum sentimentality certainly extends to the music with an appalling, pandering original credits song by Coldplay. Even Alexandre Desplat, usually a reliable bet to be better than the material, drowns in the banality of the film with a musical score of such bland unoriginality that it doesn’t sound just phoned in, but rather faxed. From 1984.
Of course, much of one’s satisfaction with the film will come down to an audience member’s hero-worship. Does merely fighting in and surviving WWII make Louis Zamperini one? And why, other than having written a book to base it on, does he get a film made about himself when there are surely plenty of other (yes, less straight, white and male) stories to be told about this oft-represented period in history? It’s especially curious since Jolie is at the held. Her last film was a Bosnian refugee drama spoken in a language other than English, and yet Unbroken is about a white guy who, much like Fury and Monuments Men also from this year, finds the courage to survive. Given the size and her obvious desire it’s mostly just disappointing that she didn’t take her moment of directorial courage to tell a story that doesn’t feel like it’s already been told many times before. I certainly knew every beat of what was going to happen long before it occurred on screen, and that was even without knowing much of his story. The way the material is handled doesn’t exactly give the impression that it could go any other way.
It would be easy to dismiss Unbroken‘s very blatant sentimentalism as lazy if it weren’t obvious that Jolie was trying so very hard. Jolie has assembled a top notch collective around her, but nobody around her seems to be trying as hard as she is and that chasm of a disconnect reflects badly. She does everything in her power to wring every potential last teardrop from the audience, but it falls flat. In one instance when Louis Zamperini attempts to prove once and for all that the evil, leering Japanese solider can’t break him, characters stand around and recite dialogue like “You can do it!” It’s nauseating. Then again, the film fits smack bang in the bland, featherweight territory that Jolie is mining these days. It’s the same direction that saw Maleficent become a film about a woman who realises the beauty and sacrifice that comes with being a mother. One needs a healthy dose of the Human Spirit to get through Unbroken, well, unbroken. It would seem that I am not that strong.