Unbroken (dir. Angelina Jolie, 2014) – After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, bombardier Louis Zamperini and his crew spend 47 days adrift on a raft before the Japanese navy sends them to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Unbroken pays a touching tribute to Louis Zamperini’s remarkable years, though the dramatisation is less inspiring than history itself.
Truth is stranger than fiction. Bombardier Louis Zamperini epitomises the cliché with his incredible real-life heroics, as narrated in the gripping chapters of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Heavy with research, the novel is unforgettable in its rich telling of Zamperini’s endurance in difficult times of war.
A two-hour film was never going to do those eventful years justice. Making good use of every second, director Angelina Jolie delivers a satisfactory directorial debut with Unbroken. Though not perfect, her efforts in remaining faithful to history are visible for the most part.
The adaptation begins on a tense note. An air crash leaves its crewmen stranded in the vast ocean for 47 days. Hope begins to dwindle along with their supplies. From fending off sharks to avoiding near-fatal strafing, Louis (Skins alumnus Jack O’Connell) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) are portrayed with credibility that far exceeds their emaciated frames. Each day adrift is a harrowing watch.
Interspersing flashbacks to his time as an aspiring Olympian are sadly the closest we ever get to knowing the real Louis Zamperini. Nor do we ever get to learn more about his accompanying crew or the other prisoners-of-war.
Despite a strong cast, the script’s inadequate intimacy makes the events difficult to relate to. Most of the soldiers fade into the background and never receive much more than a name. With few men who last to matter, Unbroken falters in its emotional potential.
A limited screen time also means that the writing quartet has to forgo details deemed less dramatic. The real Louis Zamperini once nicked a Nazi flag and shook hands with Hitler after winning a race. Upon rescue, he was greeted by the Japanese’s hospitality before falling victim to their torturous experiments.
These revelatory moments never made it past the pages. Also notably missing was Jimmie Sasaki, an enemy spy he unknowingly befriended in university and met again later in a twist of fate during his internment in Japan. The remarkable events are relinquished in favour of shocking savagery at the prisoner-of-war camps.
Unsurprisingly, the unambiguous insanity of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi) survives the cut. ‘The Bird’ puts a face to evil as he finds pleasure in singling out the soldier for sadistic beatings.
Unfortunately, the role felt miscast. It was more his deeds than his presence that intimidate. The camp is where the film suffers, as Watanabe’s brutal games play out like a perfunctory compilation of humanity’s worst. Scars quickly heal to make room for new wounds, leaving little time to linger for impact.
Less powerful that it should be, necessary gravitas suffers an emotionally distant portrayal of the arduous journey. Yet brought to screen with good intentions and a strong lead, Unbroken remains inspiring in the late incredible story of Louis Zamperini, with his resolute tenacity throughout years of unimaginable hardship.