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Unbroken

Sarah Ward

A determined lead performance shows the spirit this rousing but unremarkable retelling of a real-life hero's tale is missing.
Unbroken

Image: supplied

Defiance twinkles in the eyes of Louis "Louie" Zamperini, or – more accurately – in the gaze of the man who brings him to the screen. In Jack O’Connell, the right mix of determination to succeed and refusal to surrender is consistently present. A steely look, a furrowed brow, and a posture of purpose have marked the actor since he came to fame in TV’s Skins, then continued to make his name in Starred Up and ’71. Now, he showcases his talents in a high-profile starring role.

O’Connell’s boldness befits not just the real-life subject he plays here, but also the figure’s accompanying story, one telling of historical horrors several times overs, as well as an unwillingness to fall victim to even the most crushing of situations. Indeed, actress turned director Angelina Jolie is so certain of the never-say-die attitude required that her film, like Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction book upon which it is based, refers to it in its title – and makes plain that this is a tale of resounding resilience and triumph, not of tragedy. 

As a cheeky child (feature debutant C.J. Valleroy) growing up as the son of Italian immigrants in a small U.S. town, Louie confronted bullies and challenged expectations, soon leaving trouble-making behind for distance running. As a teen (O’Connell, 300: Rise of an Empire), a trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin followed, with the promise of a return four years later; however, the outbreak of the Second World War scuppered his plans. Swiftly, Louie was a bombardier flying high for his country, before becoming stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean after his plane crashed mid-battle. When it eventually came, rescue was at the hands of the enemy, with a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp his next destination.

Others are immersed in Louie’s ordeals of insistent courage, cycling through an upstart coming-of-age caper, sporting glory, armed camaraderie, the despair of being literally cast adrift, and the desolation of grime-smeared detention. Fellow soldiers Phil (Domhnall Gleeson, Calvary), Mac (Finn Wittrock, Winter’s Tale), Cup (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner) and Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund, On the Road) share his plight at various stages, as does a cruel tormentor, nicknamed “the bird” (glam rock star Miyavi, in his first acting role), who oversees his stay in captivity. Each remains pure narrative fodder in an effort that never deviates from selling a champion’s journey of endurance. Room for nuance exists around each interaction, but is steamrolled over not by poor performances – for none in the cast turn in bad portrayals – but in the overwhelming atmosphere of affection. 

First drafted separately by William Nicholson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra), and then rewritten by Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis), the script initially zips between several timeframes, piecing Louie’s childhood and military service together. A fine-tuned introduction thrusts the feature into the thick of the action, and with the intertwining comes heightened emotional investment in the rebellious kid who would mature into a survivor, plus greater prominence afforded the persistence and perseverance in his enterprising ways. The obvious consequence is one-note sentiment and idolatry, earned as they may be by the facts. Unbroken tells of harrowing events and a true hero, but does so with the customary weep-inducing tone of combined celebration and stately recreation all too common in many a war movie. 

In the old-fashioned honour of her third directorial outing after documentary A Place in Time and drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie handles the soaring battle, drifting wasting away and imprisoned brutality with finely choreographed yet requisitely restrained aplomb, including the corresponding tonal shifts – and with a smattering of interesting visual choices, enacted in the golden light and lingering shadows of experienced cinematographer Roger Deakins (Prisoners), too. Yet, as heartbreaking as it is to say of a true tale, there’s nothing in the rousing but unremarkable re-telling that hasn’t been seen before. With competence, confidence, convenience and convention, Unbroken renders an astonishing story standard on the big screen instead of special, rebelling against formula only in the unwavering conviction of its lead performance – a central portrayal that invests personality into a film wholly content with its status as a ennobled tribute.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Unbroken
Director: Angelina Jolie

USA, 2014, 137 mins

Release date: January 15
Distributor: Universal

Rated: M

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay