I wanted to like Unbroken. The trailer looked like warmed-over Spielberg lite, sure–“Hey, how many stirring war movie moments can I fit into two minutes, GIVE ME MY OSCAR?!”–but I really like lead actor Jack O’Connell (his Starred Up is one of my favorite movies of the year), and I wanted it to be his breakout film. Maybe it still will be. Regardless, I firmly expected that I could come out of Unbroken saying “It was decent, but damn was O’Connell great in it.”
Sadly, I can’t even say that.
Unbroken isn’t awful. As a technical director, Angelina Jolie knows her shit. She assembled a lot of people for Unbroken who also know their shit: The Coen brothers (script), six-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat (music), and 11-time (!!) Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (cinematography), to name a few. The film looks amazing, particularly the ocean scenes.
Unfortunately, where Jolie fails to deliver is in the drama department, which is a head-scratcher because the true-life story of Louis Zamperini–a troubled youth who did some bootstrap-pulling and became an Olympic track star before enlisting in World War II, after which he was lost at sea and interned in a Japanese POW camp–is pretty much the most dramatic thing ever. It is a feat to make that story dull. But, like Exodus before it, Unbroken leeched most of the spirit out of its subject. This movie has a huge ensemble cast–often I found myself going, “Wait, ____ is in this?”–and yet there are maybe three characters who were well-sketched enough for me to care about them. This becomes a particularly glaring problem in the POW camp, where the movie absolutely fails at establishing relationships between Louis and his fellow characters in favor of heaping more and more physical trials on him. His surviving those physical trials is impressive, but it’s not enough to sustain the whole back half of the movie–we needed to see him form emotional bonds with other people. And that’s tough when all your other characters are caricatures–Garrett Hedlund is the tough, rebellious American; Luke Treadaway is just British; there’s an opera singer and an Australian guy.
Domnhall Gleeson, playing a pilot Louis was lost at sea with, was the high point of the movie, because he rose above the bland script (seriously, where are the Coen brothers in this? Because I don’t see it.) to craft someone whom you can actually be somewhat invested in. I was similarly interested in Mutsushito “The Bird” Watanabe, the sadistic prison camp officer who has a personal vendetta against Louis. As a villain, he’s very cartoonish, but actor Takamasa Ishihara at least injected enough energy into the role that watching him was entertaining.
Even with The Bird, though, you could see some of Unbroken‘s problems with creating emotional connections between characters. We never get a sense of why he hates Louis so much. At the end of the scene from the trailer, where he makes Louis hoist a heavy metal bar over his head, The Bird breaks down–why? There is an emotional aspect to their relationship, more than just “I am an asshole and I want to see you suffer,” but it’s presented in a really befuddilng fashion, where you’re never quite sure what the movie’s going for. Is there supposed to be some homosexual subtext, or…? Near the beginning of the film, during the Olympic opening ceremonies, Louis exchanges a friendly glance with a Japanese athlete. I spoke to no fewer than three people who were distracted throughout the entire rest of the movie by trying to figure out whether this had been The Bird (per the credits, it isn’t). If there were some forgotten-by-Louis shared history, that would certainly explain some of The Bird’s resentment. As-is, the flavor of the relationship between The Bird and Louis, though perhaps clear in the minds of Jolie, Zamperini, Ishihara, and the Coens, didn’t come across in the finished product.
There were some other, smaller problems I had with the film. O’Connell, blessed actor o’ my heart, couldn’t pin his accent down–it started out strong, almost Brooklyn-y (for a guy from California?), and then eventually went away by the end of the film. And–I swear I’m not just nitpicking every little thing after-the-fact like those Movie Mistakes videos do, OK, this is something that distracted me during the film–it’s real fucking weird that, malnourished and imprisoned in POW camps, Zamperini & co. would still be muscly hunks with nicely formed biceps. I’m not one of those “[Insert actor here] drastically changed their appearance for a role–IT MUST BE GOOD!” people, but seriously, a little realism here, please. I call bullshit on these muscles. Gleeson went all out with it, but it’s like everyone else thought about going full Bale, but then decided they wanted to keep their abs.
It’s a minor quibble, but it’s one that’s indicative of the major problem Unbroken has, which is that it’s too slick. It’s too Hollywood. It wants to tell an uplifting story, but it doesn’t want to bother itself with said story’s emotional messiness *coughTheImitationGamecough*. Post-movie titles tell us, jarringly, that Zamperini suffered from years of PTSD, and then BTW he found Jesus and learned to forgive his captors. That needed to be in the movie.