Review by © Jane Freebury
One of the ironies of this WWII film whose director’s name precedes it, is that the young American airman at the centre of the things, was an athlete who aspired to take part in the Olympics that were to be held in Japan in 1940. He made it to Tokyo early in the 1940s, not as an Olympian but as a prisoner of war.
If it is harder to tell a tale of raw heroism these days, and as memories of the terrible tribulations of the generation who fought WWII disappear as the veterans pass away, it has become easier to engage us on screen in a visceral way with what they went through. Director Angeline Jolie ensures that we share what bombardier Louis Zamperini (a solid performance by English actor Jack O’Connell) experiences, intimately, earnestly. From the early scenes in the B-24 as it takes part in a bombing raid over Japanese-held Nauru to its last sortie, a rescue mission that ends in the ocean killing eight of the 11 crew, to the long days as sea in a life raft, awaiting rescue.
The two survivors, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Zamperini, spend a month and a half at sea, surviving on shark flesh caught with albatross meat. After the chocolate ran out, any creature that flew onto their life raft or swam too close to it was fair game.
Unbroken is rather too long at nearly 140 minutes, but the sharper edge and dash of gallows humour in the screenplay helps. It is surely the work of co-screenwriters the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who had a hand in the adaptation of the book by Laura Hillenbrand to the screen. Visuals also benefit from the fine work of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, a favourite collaborator of the Coens.
For most of the time, Jolie is content to let her protagonist Zamperini remain a face in the crowd, no braver than his fellow survivors or prison inmates. However, it was the bombardier’s misfortune to be recognised as a former Olympian. He is ‘picked on’ by the vicious Japanese corporal, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), again and again. It becomes clear his sadistic persecutor has some issues of his own, though I felt that Ishihara was allowed to overplay his hand here.
It’s also an irony that Zamperini was introduced to Hitler, apparently, when the runner represented his country at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Wisely, the film doesn’t go there.
Unbroken isn’t a new twist on the battle genre but it is handled pretty well, and it is handsomely mounted. While the simple dialectics of a WWII film dominate, they are inevitable. And then, like The Railway Man, Unbroken provides a coda of peacetime forgiveness and reconciliation that works for the sensibilities of today.