Unbroken (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : An old-fashioned biopic for Oscar season

unbroken01  It goes without saying that Louis Zamperini, the hero of “Unbroken”, had an interesting life worthwhile to be told. While he initially drew lots of attention as a young promising Olympic distant runner through his athletic talent, he served in the US Air Force during the World War II, and then he went through long, difficult ordeals after his bomber plane crashed in the middle of the Pacific Oceans. Despite all those torments forced upon him after he was captured by the Japanese army, he survived in the end through his resilience, and he also found a way to be in peace with his dark memories while becoming an inspiring figure during his later years.

Sadly, though it is made with lots of sincerity and respect, “Unbroken” feels bland and superficial in its supposedly epic scope. While there are good moments to be admired for the efforts and skills put into them, we rarely get the sense of a man at its center while it plods along the crucial incidents in his life, and many moments of suffering he endures in the film somehow never feel that close to us while we are reminded again and again of how indomitable his spirit is.

At the beginning, the story goes back and force between Zamperini’s early years during 1920-30s and his military service years during the World War II. During the opening sequence, Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and the other crew members of his bomber plane are in the middle of their latest mission, and this sequence is skillfully handled to generate visceral feelings which instantly put us into their risky situation full of possible dangers. They succeed in bombarding their target, but then they have to engage Japanese fighters, and the possibility of death is palpable to everyone on the plane.

While following their struggle during the mission, the movie occasionally flashbacks to Zamperini’s early years. When he was a kid, Zamperini frequently got himself into troubles, but then his older brother noticed his little brother’s natural potential as a runner, and Zamperini began his training under his brother’s constant support and coaching. After winning the national championship several years later, he immediately prepares himself for the next level, and we soon see him in the middle of the 1936 Berlin Olympic. Although Zamperini did not finish first during his 5,000-meter race, his remarkable running speed during the last lap drew the media’s attention, and he even personally met Adolf Hitler after the race (that small interesting fact is omitted in the movie, by the way).

unbroken03 Although his hope for another chance to win four years later is dashed because of the World War II, Zamperini never gives up even when he is doing his military service in the Pacific Ocean. After surviving another dangerous mission along with his comrades, he goes through his training session as usual, and he looks as hopeful as ever while focused on his running.

However, his bomber crashes to the ocean during one small mission, and he and two surviving crew members have to struggle for more than 40 days while depending on their two lifeboats and a few other things to support them. Their struggle with many dangers and obstacles including the lack of fresh water is depicted effectively on the screen, and O’Connell and his two co-actors are convincing as their characters are slowly deteriorated by hunger and dehydration under their despairing condition.

After one of them dies, Zamperini and the other guy are later captured by the Japanese Army. They are sent to Tokyo after suffering a number of harsh treatments, and then there are more harsh treatments awaiting for them. Right from his first day at a prisoner-of-war camp near Tokyo, Zamperini draws the attention of Corporal Watanabe (Miyavi), and this sadistic hateful guy, who is nicknamed ‘the Bird’ by his prisoners, is determined to abuse him in every possible way.

The rest of the film depicts the series of torturous moments Zamperini has to endure due to Watanabe and other Japanese soldiers, and that is where the story becomes less powerful and interesting than before. While there are indeed terrible moments such as when Watanabe forces all of his prisoners to punch Zamperini in the face one by one as another sadistic punishment, the director Angelina Jolie unfortunately dilutes their emotional power while making these scenes look apparently staged and polished. As looking at Zamperini and other prisoners, I was more aware of how carefully their ‘grimy’ clothes were prepared along with their makeups before shooting, and I also noticed how the great cinematographer Roger Deakin’s first-rate work on the screen draws more attention to all those good-looking shots rather than people inside them. When Zamperini is collapsed during one scene, the camera looks away from him to capture Watanabe’s domineering presence in the twilight, and you can clearly see how problematic its execution is even when you admire the splendid visual work on the screen.

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“Unbroken” is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”. I heard from others that the book is a very vivid account of Zamperini’s life, but the adapted screenplay written by Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, and Joel and Ethan Coen is tame and artificial in many aspects, and, considering several corny moments in the film, I wonder about how much the Coen brothers really participated in the writing process. While the story feels dragged and monotonous especially during the last act of Zamperini’s ordeal, the ending feels shallow without much emotional impact to touch us, and that looks all the more ironic considering how Zamperini used to surprise people during his races.

This is the second feature film directed by Angelina Jolie, and she shows here that she is a competent director with skills to be honed further. There is nothing seriously wrong with her film on the technical level, but she does not succeed in presenting human interests to engage us, and her movie feels more like an old-fashioned biography film made for Oscar season as a result. She surely made this film for honoring her subject, but I think she had a little too much respect while making it.

I am disappointed with “Unbroken” on the whole, but I appreciate its good elements which certainly deserve better than this. Jack O’Connell, who was quite good in “Starred Up” (2013) and “’71” (2014), and his co-star Domhnall Gleeson did everything they could do with their respective roles, and I expect that the movie will get several Oscar nominations in technical categories. It does present sufferings on the screen, but, alas, I do not see much of a man below them.

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