40. Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie

40. Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie

Unbent and Unbeaten in Unbroken

By Rose Marel

If you weren’t aware that Unbroken was an autobiographical film, dismissing the story as an over-the-top Hollywood fabrication would be entirely natural. It’s a life so inconceivably packed with opposition, courage and achievement that it’s almost easier to assume it’s fiction: his struggles as a young boy; his transformation into an Olympic runner; his early service during WW2; a horrendous 47 days adrift after his plane crashes; and, finally, a years-long imprisonment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. It’s bursting at the seams with stuff, a one hundred and thirty seven minute distillation of Louis Zamperini’s life. Except, yes, Louis Zamperini, and his incredible life, is not a work of fiction.

To whittle any person’s entire existence within a temporally restrictive, subjective medium is a task that seems both overwhelming and impossible. But when the person has also lived a cat-like nine lives, then, well… Holy, moly, gird your loins and good luck to you! Angelina Jolie, in her second directorial effort, undertakes a truly epic challenge in the telling of Louis Zamperini’s life story, played by the always impressive Jack O’Connell.

Visually grounding itself within the World War II era, both with costume and an initial colour palette of subdued tones, Unbroken evokes films from the time itself. Even the actor’s melodic delivery – a far-cry from the monotonal vocal fry that now seems to dominate our screens – is reminiscent of Old Hollywood. Perhaps, consistent with the by-gone jargon, the script can at times seem like a shower of corn. Once again, though, to knock the seemingly cliched motif of “If you take it, you can make it” would be to knock potential fact, given it’s autobiographical nature.

With so many distinct phases to explore, Jolie grapples with Zamperini’s life by methodically dividing the film into three Acts. The first brims with exposition, establishing the troubles of his boyhood before reigning his energy into running. By spending time with his athletic training and stressing the efforts required of such a specific discipline, Jolie foreshadows a strength of spirit that will eventually be stretched to its limits. Also squeezed into Act I is Louis’ rise to Olympic level, where he competes before the War claims him as an air force lieutenant.

It’s while deployed in military action that Zamperini’s plane is shot down, shipwrecking him and the surviving crew members Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock). Therein, we have Act II, a suspenseful chapter which masterfully balances the slow accumulation of time with sustaining audience engagement. The intensity of blue, an unending vastness that surrounds them, becomes an oppressive reminder of their helplessness as the days begin to accumulate. Jolie bombards the Act with various threats, from the blinding white of sun, to underwater shots that peer up at their puny raft while sharks silhouette the frame. The whole thing is tensely horrifying, and somehow evokes a sense of open claustrophobia: being trapped in isolated expansiveness.

Image result for unbroken film

Eventually, the torture comes to an end only to be succeeded by yet another, when Louis is captured and taken to a POW camp. Abused physically and mentally by his captors, our protagonist encounters attacks that prove more intense than any bullets previously fired. O’Connell powerfully evokes the internal struggle of strength as it tears back at despair, allowing a vulnerability to erupt from beneath his outward masculinity. Japanese Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe (played by the charismatically compelling Japanese pop-star Miyavi) strikes up an immediate hatred for the American, testing his resilience and physical capabilities.

Each Act is as significant and isolated as the next, so it’s little surprise that Unbroken struggles somewhat in pace. The frantic character-driven introduction, to the situational stasis of shipwrecking for example, feels fairly disjointed. With that said, in reality we do compartmentalise our lives in order to make sense of our present circumstances, and there’s no way around the fact that Zamperini had a life composed of various trials, one after the next. Understandably then, the story contrastingly pushes and pulls, alternating between slowness and rushing.

Jolie succeeds in removing any glorification of war, laying it down in a straightforward fashion that feels warily concerned with maintaining historical accuracy. If anything, it feels as if emotion is being overtly pushed onto us. The film doesn’t hide its attempt to manipulate the viewer, as music swells with trembling legato strings and drums rhythmically echo the beating of a human heart. Vocal in her admiration of Zamperini, Jolie underlines the inspirational themes to the point where he appears faultless, betraying no flaws beside the natural struggles of will. Thematically one-note perhaps, but Jolie follows this vision through from start to finish with a consistency that’s admirable.

Director Angelina Jolie, on the set of Unbroken.

Indeed, considering the immensity of adapting Zamperini’s life – both the occurrences and the psychological journey – into just over two hours, it would be grossly unfair not to doff our caps to Jolie. She faces the recreation of events that are so huge in themselves (the Olympics, the war, a shipwrecking, a POW camp) that to compound them into a single film is a testament to her bravery as a director and creative force.

Likewise, O’Connell delivers a performance of complete dedication. He brings a varied performance as he encapsulates the fight and mental strength that makes Zamperini a survivor, in tandem with exposing his emotional lows. On a physical level, he also pushed his body in order to physicalise Zamperini during different phases of his life, including as a starving prisoner of war.

Particularly given the short attention span of the modern audience, Unbroken is a long film, but it needs to be. No expense is spared, and visually it’s a beautifully shot, cinematic epic. Jolie’s determination to honour such an inspiring life ensures that its narrative rings with dignity and truth. Rather than concern herself with the bells and whistles of storytelling, Jolie zeros in on what it is at the core: story.

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