Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review - Unbroken

Louie Zamperini has an incredible life story to tell. The odds were already stacked against him from a young age, growing up as one of four children of an immigrant family in Depression-era California. In spite of this, he made a name for himself as a competitive distance runner, represented America in the Berlin Olympics, served his country as a bombardier in WWII, survived a plane crash that left him stranded for 47 days in the Pacific Ocean, and lived out the remainder of the war in a Japanese POW camp under the harshest conditions imaginable.
Just that cursory synopsis of his bio is enough to make one wonder why his life story hasn't been made into a major motion picture already, but we finally get one in the form of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, which arrived on Christmas Day. Zamperini passed away in July at 97 years of age, and while no one wants to rain on the posthumous parade of a man who endured through so much struggle, the sad reality is that an incredible true story does not necessarily an incredible movie make.

Unbroken is just not that good a film; A clich├ęd exercise that reaches for artificial inspiration while saying very little about the figure who serves as its subject. The problem is not in the story, but in the storytelling, as it fails to shape Zamperini's harrowing saga into any kind of effective structure.

No less than four writers took a hack a various drafts of the screenplay, including Oscar winning scribes Joel & Ethan Coen and past nominees Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. The murky collision of structures and styles is so evident, you can almost separate various segments of the film based on who probably wrote them.

They open with an aerial firefight from which Zamperini's B-24 bomber limps back to base looking like Swiss cheese on wings, intercut with poorly timed flashbacks to his youth and Olympic experience. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for this initially jumpy chronology, except to start off with a combat sequence for fear that the audience would be immediately bored otherwise.
The rest of the story unfolds in basic linear fashion following his fateful crash in the south Pacific, but this act comes with its own set of problems. Drifting for 47 days in a tiny raft with two other crash survivors, forced to survive on rainwater and what fish they could catch, all the while fending off sharks and a pesky Japanese fighter jet with terrible aim could have made a pretty decent movie on its own if it had characters who were the least bit interesting to watch. Alas, aside from a few jump scenes lifted straight out of Jaws, one's mind ends up drifting just like their battered lifeboat.

Louie Zamperini 'the man' was no doubt a complex human being, like all of us, but Louie Zamperini 'the screen character' is rather one-dimensional. Despite a hungry performance from newcomer Jack O'Connell (literally hungry for most of it), we don't end up learning much about him other than all the hardships he had to endure.

This is never more true than in the film's even more sluggish and numbingly repetitive POW camp chapters. It's here where the man-vs-nature drama jerks sharply into a conflict of man-vs-man, as we meet the nasty Cpl. Watanabe (Japanese pop star Miyavi) who canes, whips, bludgeons, and verbally lashes our hero for the majority of the remaining hour and a half.

As satisfying as it may be to think of a wholesome American boy bending but never breaking under such physical and psychological duress, the whole thing borders on misery porn because the film doesn't seem to be trying to make any kind of point about what we are witnessing. It's thematically barren, save for the pedestrian notion of “if you can take it, you can make it”.
This idea is not only simplistic, but also selective and misguided, choosing to champion Zamperini's “unbreakable” spirit while glossing over the fact that for years following the war he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress (mentioned only briefly in the epilogue).

Worse yet, it cannot shake the icky stigma of depicting the Japanese as sadistic monsters. A vague explanation is offered for Watanabe's erratic cruelty in a single shot at the end of Zamperini's ordeal, but it still hardly counts as fair or unbiased treatment of a potentially interesting character. The bottom line is that Unbroken hardly seems like the declaration of forgiveness that the closing postscripts declare it to be.

Neither high-concept narrative nor deep-digging character study, it's not even formally impressive enough to consistently hold our attention for nearly two-and-a-half hours. That's not to say it's made incompetently. A lot of it just feels... bland.

Alexandre Desplat has perhaps never composed a score as anonymous-sounding as this; All the editorial and sound work is credible, but hardly involving; And Roger Deakins may deserve credit for some painterly compositions here and there, but the vast majority of the camera work is quite utilitarian for a master photographer of his pedigree.
No one's likely to question Jolie's good intentions. There's a nobleness in attempting to tell a story in the spirit of forgiving past wrongs, and in honouring a man who by all means deserves a hero's welcome. She was in fact a close friend of Zamperini, and obviously felt a strong personal attachment to telling his story. It just isn't an attachment that she's able to translate to her audience.

** out of ****

1 comment:

  1. It's actually kind of a shame, but I enjoyed it more than you did. It was a lot like War Horse two years ago, which I also enjoyed. But obviously, it's not for everybody.