The story of Louis Zamperini is an incredible one. An Olympian runner turned WWII bombardier, he managed to survive over 40 days floating in the Pacific Ocean after his plane crashed. As if this alone wasn’t enough, he was then captured by the Japanese as a prisoner of war, surviving harsh conditions in various prison camps. It would take a special kind of mess to render this story dull, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened with Unbroken – a limp, lifeless effort from actress turned director Angelina Jolie.
Louis is played by rising star Jack O’Connell, a former Skins alumni turned film actor recently seen in critically acclaimed works like ’71 and Starred Up. To his credit, he does the best he can with the material provided, but what’s provided really doesn’t amount to much. For a Hollywood production, Unbroken doesn’t actually have a lot of dialogue, and what there is is trite and clichéd. A speech given in flashback to a young Zamperini from his brother about making it if you ‘just believe’ particularly comes to mind here.
Furthermore, these flashbacks feel rushed, never giving the character time to breathe; one minute he’s a kid engaging in petty acts of boyhood like fighting and underage drinking, next minute we’re supposed to believe that he would have headed down the wrong path if he hadn’t taken up running. Yet the only way we know this is because a character blurts it out. The incredible moment that is competing in the Olympics is similarly ill handled, goes by in a flash, and is made to seem like any other sporting event, through a lack of a sense of scale.
Things improve after these rocky beginnings because the film finally allows itself time to stretch itself out, making Zamperini’s struggle at sea with just a few crewmates feel genuinely lonely and terrifying. Unfortunately it rather overeggs this pudding, meaning the ordeal of a prison camp becomes an ordeal for the audience – not in some clever artistic way, but because it provides neither character insight nor any real idea of what it was like as a day to day struggle. It’s effectively scene by scene of beatings and mistreatment until the war ends.
A final slide show informs us that Zamperini credited his faith in God as helping him get through things and yet little of this is present in the film, which all too often tells when it should show. When it does show, it does in the blandest way possible, placing the camera too far from the action and either supporting it with a by-numbers score, or simply not using music at all when some scenes could have really done with a boost.
Unbroken aptly demonstrates what happens when great source material is handled by a director who doesn’t know how to make the most out of what they’re given. While not a total failure, its numerous pacing issues, stale script and lack of character makes it difficult to recommend.