Hit me over the head again, please
Again the fledgling director Angelina Jolie has made a film that’s powerful, unflinching, and hard to watch, like her 2011 feature debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey. Few saw that one. Many more will come out to see this. It’s a wide release, worldwise; Honey wasn’t released at all in the UK and only shown in 18 US cinemas. Unbroken is also based on a bestselling book by a bestselling American author (Laura Hildebrand of Seabiscuit), about an American war hero, Louis Zamperini. It tells a sweeping tale of triumph over hardship and adversity in Japanese prison camps. Another reason to see it: its star is the hot young UK actor of the moment, Jack O’Connell. A Brit with an Irish father and English mother, the 24-year-old O’Connell stars in two of the top UK action films of the year, the prison drama Starred Up and the breathless thriller about Belfast during the Troubles,’71 (NYFF). He is known at home for playing Pukey in Shane Meadows’ indie classic about punk kids This Is England, and James Cook in the E4 teen drama Skins. “Jack the Lad,” as his tattoo proclaims, has been featured on the cover of New York Times Style Magazine, photographed by Bruce Weber. Maybe he needs to calm down a little. But he clearly has a knack for intensity and welcomes physical challenges. And clearly he’s one to watch. But this American movie he’s in, Unbroken, is a disappointment, monotonous, even more relentless and grim than Jolie’s debut. It’s well made but conventional. Focusing on a time and events that are too well known, it lacks the documentary-specific sense of time and place Honey had.
At first it looks like Jolie can’t even bear to tell her story straight, when she has her hero, Zamperini, stuck in a fighter plane that’s about to crash into the Pacific and be trapped in a rubber raft for 47 days. She keeps flashing back to his youthful triumphs as a runner, where he was a remarkable miler for his age and time and got to compete in the Berlin Olympics. No detail about these, which are just glimpsed in Greatest Hits style, like a trailer: and sure enough, they were heavily weighted in the trailer itself. When you see the film you find out why. It’s hard to dramatise sitting and cooking in a raft for 47 days. It gives you time to wonder about casting an Irish boy as the son of Italian immigrants, and his pronunciation of the word “gnocchi.” O’Connell has shone at playing angry, troubled youths; he has to tone it down a bit here, focus mainly on a stiff upper lip. After this high profile role maybe he’ll pop up in Marvel Comics movies yet, but that’s not a particular boon for him or us. He’s best in the gritty, specific British stuff.
Something important in the book and Zamperini’s inspirational life seems missing here, or what there is just works better in a book than a movie. There’s a little about the other raft survivor, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), but only one character emerges other than Zamperini, a warped young Japanese corporal named Watanabe, later sergeant, in charge of two of the camps he’s in. The choice of Takamasa Ishihara, a youthful musician with a soft, feminine face, to play this warped, borderline psychotic role seems odd. He has only one distant expression, as he repeatedly whips Zamperini across the face and body with a long bamboo rod on multiple occasions. In this masochistic story of endurance Zamperini almost has to ask “The Bird” (his brutaliser’s nickname, we learn later) to hit him over the head again and again.
Things are bad but they get worse toward the end of the war when Allied bombing comes close to the camp Zamperini’s in and its inmates are all transferred to a more remote location for hauling coal where every prisoner’s black from the stuff and every day seems to be a living hell, climaxing when a totally exhausted Zamperini is made by Watanabe, himself exhausted, to raise a heavy piece of lumber aloft over his head and hold it there for hours.
Or it seems like hours. The problem is that this film, which also has to tell the story of the Japanese attempt to use Zamperini as an Olympic athlete for propaganda purposes, seems unable to convey the sense of monotony and duration of the physical and mental tests Louis Zamperini endured. Jolie is shooting for uplift but this is material that Robert Bresson could have better handled at in a more compact length. No help came from the scribe work of four writers including the Coen brothers (who rarely script for hire) or the conventional surging music of Alexandre Desplat. Dp Roger Deakins also provides quality, but not originality. Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock and Luke Treadaway costar.
Unbroken, 137 mins., debuted 25 Dec. 2014, 26th in the UK, in January and February 2015 in some other countries.
DIRECTOR: ANGELINA JOLIE
WRITERS: JOEL AND ETHAN COEN, RICHARD LAGREVANESE, WILLIAM NICHOLSON (SCREENPLAY), LAURA HILDEBRAND (BOOK)
STARS: JACK O’CONNELL, TAKAMASA ISHIHARA, DOMHNALL GLEESON, GARRETT HEDLUND, FINN WITTROCK, LUKE TREADAWAY