Unbroken review

Hell in the Pacific…

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When Angelina Jolie chose to direct the triumph-of-the-spirit WW2 story of Louie Zamperini, she had no idea she’d pounced on one of Hollywood’s most famous unmade movies, acquired originally by Universal for Tony Curtis in 1957. Undaunted, she’s wrestled the inspirational memoir of the Olympic runner who endured 47 days lost in the Pacific and two brutal Japanese POW camps into a handsome, gripping and supremely respectful survival drama. This is the story of one man’s war; but though it honours the Greatest Generation, there’s no high-stakes combat like Spielberg’s series The Pacific, or any deconstruction of duty and heroism a la Flags Of Our Fathers.

Instead there’s a nostalgic whiff of Old Hollywood in Jolie's naked admiration for Zamperini’s extraordinary resilience in the face of plane crashes, sharks, fighter-strafing, near-starvation and endless inhuman beatings. Intrigued by his strength of character, Jolie keeps the film focused unabashedly on the almost superhuman determination he used to cheat death repeatedly. We may be in the South Pacific, but there’s no ‘Happy Talk’…

Fascinated by how you get to be a self-made hero, the neatly woven script tucks Zamperini’s self-willed transformation from teen tearaway to Olympic lap-record runner into telling flashbacks, during crunchy, plane-splintering Pacific crashes. Jolie makes powerful use of Zamperini’s POV to get up-close-and-personal, giving you the inside view of every ordeal, from eating albatross to raging in a jungle ‘sweatbox’. It’s powerful stuff, but the film’s insistence on exploring each experience in depth means that though it’s often tense, the pace doesn’t exactly race. DOP Roger Deakins lingers on the terrible beauty of bombers gliding like flocking birds, and the agonies of repeated bamboo-staff beatings. The film’s oft-repeated motto ‘If you can take it, you can make it’, presumably also applies to its viewers.

Nonetheless, Jack O’Connell’s, wiry, indefatigable Zamperini holds your attention without effort. A gutsy, vulnerable portrayal of a resolutely ordinary guy transformed by sheer willpower, he’s equally absorbing as a life-raft morale-booster, or as the hideously abused scapegoat of Omori POW camp. As camp commander ‘The Bird’, chiselled Japanese rock star Miyavi is his only real match in the movie. Positively sweating with sadism, he sets up a compelling battle of wills, reminiscent of The Railway Man. This invigorates the horrific punishments that dot the last act of the film, one of which is so breath-catchingly terrible and full of self-sacrifice that the movie nearly peaks too early and spanners its big, defiant finish.

However, for all its heroism (Zamperini is like a WW2 Odysseus, fighting ocean ordeals and human monsters), Unbroken would have benefited from a touch less hero worship. We all love an underdog story, but we like to see what they get up to when they’re off the leash.

VERDICT: Jolie's polished memorial to Zamperini's astonishing wartime valour sees O'Connell on star-making form. The uber-inspiring theme and lack of Fury-style gore should grab older kids as well as hero-hungry adults.

More info

UK theatrical release26 December 2014
DirectorAngelina Jolie
Starring"Jack O'Connell","Domhnall Gleeson","Miyavi","Garrett Hedlund"
Available platformsMovie
Freelance Writer

Kate is a freelance film journalist and critic. Her bylines have appeared online and in print for GamesRadar, Total Film, the BFI, Sight & Sounds, and WithGuitars.com.