Thursday 20 June 2019

Review: Unbreakable - Angelina Jolie's wartime epic had the potential to be great

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

For a few years now Angelina Jolie has been making noises about retiring from acting, and apparently intends to throw her hat at the whole movie star thing sometime soon. So how, you may ask, is the most famous woman in the world planning to fill her hours when she does?


Well there's the charity work, saving the world and so forth, and dodging photographers must kill a bit of time, but Ms Jolie also has serious plans as a film-maker, and has both produced and directed this ambitious wartime drama based on a remarkable true story.

At one point Louis Zamperini's life looked like the perfect American dream. Born in New York in 1917 to first-generation Italian immigrants, Zamperini grew up in California and learnt to deal with prejudice and bullying by humiliating his enemies on the athletics field. He became a champion middle-distance runner, and represented the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

He enlisted in the US Air Force before Pearl Harbor, becoming a bombardier, and in 1943 he was on a search and rescue mission over the Pacific when his B-24 was shot down and crashed some 850 miles south of the Japanese island of Oahu.

Only three of the 11-strong crew survived, and Zamperini and two comrades were left drifting in the open Pacific without food or water. They survived by catching fish and sea birds, and while one of the three died after 33 days, Louis and his pilot, Phil Phillips, eventually hit land at the Marshall Islands. Unfortunately, they were immediately captured by the Japanese, and endured two hellish years in barbaric prison camps.

In Jolie's film, rising star Jack O'Connell plays Zamperini, whose inner resilience is all he can rely on when he enters a world far removed from the niceties of the Geneva Convention.

After being held in jungle hovels, beaten and humiliated, Louis and Phillips are separated, and the Italian-American eventually ends up to a camp near Tokyo called Omori, where he has the great misfortune to meet Mutsuhiro 'The Bird' Watanabe (played here by Japanese rock star Mayavi).

A camp corporal considered a hopeless underachiever by his military family, Watanabe is incensed by Zamperini's spirit the moment he lays eyes on him, and breaks his nose with a bamboo rod for no reason. This is only the beginning of Louis' ordeal, as The Bird mercilessly beats and picks on him in an attempt to break his spirit, something Zamperini quietly resolves he'll never allow happen.

It's an incredible story, of cruelty, survival and hope, and might have become one of those great wartime epics in someone else's hands. But while Ms Jolie does a competent job in some respects, her film remains stubbornly chronological and one-dimensional, and is gruelling and plodding rather than actually dramatic.

The air and sea incidents are handled well, and provide the best moments in the film, but once Jolie and co arrive at the camps, Unbroken becomes bogged down in prison-camp clichés, and only Zamperini emerges as a partially rounded character.

In David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, to which this film might reasonably be compared, a brutal jungle prison camp was merely the backdrop to Colonel Nicholson's dilemma: in trying to keep his men's spirits up, he has unintentionally collaborated with the Japanese, a reality he accepts with horror in that film's magnificent climax.

That was a fictional story, and this is not, which has limited Angelina Jolie and her writers Joel and Ethan Coen to some extent: but that's no excuse for a film that fails to give Zamperini's suffering meaning.

A way around this might have been to make The Bird a flesh-and-blood character with whom it is possible on some level to empathise. But in Unbroken we get none of that: he is merely a sadist, and Zamperini merely suffers.

WATCH: The Movie Show Christmas special: Unbroken, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Annie

Irish Independent

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