Unbroken (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

film unbroken_smIf you think of it as a cross between Forrest Gump, Life of Pi, and The Deer Hunter, but based on a true story, you wouldn’t be too far off.




film unbroken

How come all of this year’s Oscar season films seem so similar? Both The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are true stories of British prodigies; The Imitation Game and Unbroken are true World War II stories; and Unbroken and Foxcatcher are true stories about Olympic athletes. Come on, movies, try harder to differentiate yourselves from the pack!

Unbroken really doesn’t need the push those other movies might, though, given that it’s based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name, which has been on the bestseller list for literally years. Also, it’s the first high-profile film directed by Angelina Jolie, and its script was co-written by the Coen brothers. So one or more of those things are likely to appeal to any serious-minded moviegoer, right?

Unbroken is Louis Zamperini’s story, who first was an Olympic runner, and then fought in WWII. His plane went down over enemy waters, leaving him adrift with two other survivors in a raft for many weeks before being picked up by the enemy Japanese and held as a prisoner of war. If you were to think of it as a cross between Forrest Gump, Life of Pi, and The Deer Hunter, but based on a true story, you wouldn’t be too far off.

Similar to how the relatively untested Jolie managed to direct this hot property (untested in the director’s chair, at least; her only other narrative feature was 2011’s little-seen In the Land of Blood and Honey), the plum role of Zamperini went to the relatively unknown Jack O’Connell, who doesn’t ham it up like much of his competition for the role likely would have. Strange though that this film, eagerly anticipated by a great chunk of the American population, landed in Jolie’s and O’Connell’s hands.

To its credit, Unbroken walks the tightrope between being historically dishonest and making all of the Japanese population out to seem like supervillains. It concentrates its villainy in one figure, the Bird (played by Japanese musician Miyavi, who has no other comparably sized roles in front of the camera), while most of the rest of the Japanese are seen as passive, silent figures.

Though Jolie, O’Connell, and Miyavi are all capable in what’s required of them, none really make a name for themselves enough to justify the risk taken by the producers in hiring them. Elsewhere, the Coens’ script, written alongside Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, bears no distinctive mark of their input. Jolie made the wise choice to poach the Coens’ usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, to shoot the film, and his work is one of the factors most willing to imprint itself on your memory.

In the end, Unbroken is a bit of a tough case. There’s nothing really wrong with it, and I respect a lot of its choices and artistry, but it’s surprisingly forgettable, too. Should a movie based on the incredible life of Zamperini be so easy to dismiss with a shrug? | Pete Timmermann

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