Director’s vision strays from inspirational story “Unbroken”

A historical letdown

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Jake Dalbey, Staff Writer

“Unbroken” feels like a mannequin for most of it’s running time. It gives the impression of being genuine and beautiful but in actuality it’s fake and lifeless. The story of a track star who goes through hell and back just to see the ones he loves again is a powerful story and “Unbroken” definitely talks a good game, but by the time the credits roll it’s clear that it can’t follow through with those promises. Because for every minute “Unbroken” takes a step in the right direction, it take two giant steps backwards.

Jack O’ Connell stars as Louis Zamperini, a boy with a talent for track in the early 1920’s and 30’s. Picked on as a child, Zamperini uses running as a personal remedy for all the hatred aimed at his Italian-American family. From this, Zamperini becomes a local track star and eventually progresses to the 1930’s Olympics breaking the single lap track record. If that seems like an all too brief summary of Zamperini’s early life, is because for the most part it is. Director and actor Angelina Jolie gives very little context early on in the film as to the extent of Zamperini’s running skills or how far they progress him in life. From an audience perspective, it seemed as though Jolie was waving a giant wrong way sign pointing the viewers towards what she deemed important. It comes off as a vision getting in the way of telling a story and this is a theme that plagues the rest of “Unbroken”.

After enlisting in the Air Force, why is never explained, Zamperini is shot down inside a bomber plane during a mission. From here he survives at sea only to be captured by the Japenese navy and hauled away to a ‘POW’ camp. It’s here that the bulk of “Unbroken” takes place, under the direction of Sergeant Watanabe, also known as “The Bird”. Watanabe forms a vigorous bond of hate and torture against Zamperini and begins to try to break him.

Both actors do a fine job of portraying their characters, the two have fantastic chemistry along with a few memorable side characters but they can’t save what is ultimately just a horrific script. Nothing in “Unbroken” is subtle or shows any sign of nuance, Jolie forcefully spoon feeds cringe worthy lines of hope and inspiration down each scenes throat until it becomes almost numbing. Instead of relying on developing “The Bird” into a formidable foe for Louis to tackle he instead becomes a glove towards the punching bag that is Zamperini. Be prepared to endure what felt like two hours of watching a man beat up another. It’s as if Jolie is trying to show how brutal these camps were during WWII by just showing repetitive scenes of PG-13 violence, and at first they are shockingly ferocious, but after awhile it felt more like a tired formula. A scene of violence accompanied by an uplifting message from Zamperini, rinse and repeat at nauseum.

A good word to describe “Unbroken” is heartless, as any sense of real humans and real human suffering is taken aback by Jolie’s insistence on telling an inspiring story. Everything appears to be heavy handed as characters are used as emotional quote machines before they are executed. There’s a moment in the film where Zamperini is tasked with holding a log above his or be shot and killed, and almost halfway through the ordeal a literal white light shines upon him inside his head before Hallmark channel-worthy music chimes in as a clue in the audience that this is where you should tear up. This happens so frequently that it begins to pull away at any suspension of disbelief already used up.

Even Zamperini himself at times is hard to feel compassionate for, given what he is going through. For a film focused on the life and times of an Olympic WWII survivor, there’s very little life on display here. Clear holes remain in Zamperini’s story of struggle to what he did after the war or even before college. Though he acted very well, O’Connell clearly cannot hold the weight of this controversial story on his back and the script does no favors in helping him out in any way.

A positive remains, however, in the beautiful set and costume design. Every scene has a very crisp look with some very impressive builts camps, including the standout coal mining barge. Makeup looks very effective on the prisoners of war, and is one of the only reasons to feel sympathy for these men, besides the obvious real world connection. Jolie had some money invested in this venture and it sure shows.

In the end, it’s all too bad because what’s here in premise is pretty solid. A story as inspirational and truly unbelievable as this deserves to have a better representation, but instead is lost underneath Jolies very apparent heavy handed approach to directing. I walked away interested in the man behind the story but not the film itself, and if that doesn’t speak volumes about “Unbroken” I don’t know what does.