Unbroken English Movie Review

Feature Film | War
While it may not be path-breaking cinema, it marks an assured turn behind the lens for Angelina Jolie, a star-making performance from Jack O'Connell and a great start to the year for world cinema.
Jan 2, 2015 By Piyush Chopra

Many have tried and many have failed. Few actors have actually made a successful transition from mainstream actors to well-received directors, with the notable exceptions of Ben Affleck and George Clooney. It is one thing to have a great aesthetic while choosing scripts, but it's a completely different ball game successfully translating that aesthetic onscreen from behind the camera.

Angelina Jolie is the latest in line to try her luck at the box office. Jolie made an interesting debut as director in 2011 with In The Land Of Milk and Honey, a film set during the Bosnian war with a cast comprising solely of Bosnian Serb actors. The film received a mediocre reception and never saw a wide theatrical release. Jolie returns this week with Unbroken, a film that she has repeatedly called her "labor of love".

Unbroken is basically a love letter to Louis Zamperini, a popular U.S. Olympic athlete of Italian origin who served his country during World War II and was then captured and tortured by the Japanese. The film shows his journey from being a rebellious teenager who smoked and drank, to a Prisoner of War who survived 47 days on a raft without food and water and never have up on his country.

The film starts off promisingly with a well-choreographed mid-air plane combat and the subsequent stranding of "Zamp" in the middle of the ocean with two of his crew. During this period, the film cuts back and forth between the present war sequences and his past as an Olympian, something that I found problematic. On most instances, the cut-aways are jarring and actually take the tension out of the tense action sequences. To add to that, the portions chronicling his career as an athlete give off a strong sense of deja vu, having seen such sequences in many-a-films before.

Up till then, the film maintained a constant graph, always keeping your interest alive but also feeling like an assembly of scenes from other (better) films. It is after Louis and his mates get stranded on the raft that the film really takes off and Jolie comes into her own as a director. Suffering from sunburn, and surviving on rain water and the killing and eating of sharks, the situation is grim, but Jolie is able to find humor even in tough situations. She tries her hardest to make the film come off as earnest rather than emotionally manipulative, and she manages to success more often than not.

As Zamperini gets captured by the Japanese and sent to a series of prisoner of war camps, the film manages to find its sweet spot and keeps growing on you further and further. The brutal depiction of these camps has its own poetic qualities, with Louis forming weird love-hate relationship with his Japanese jailor "The Bird" Watanabe. Well, not LOVE love, but a Stockholm syndrome-ish attachment where no nice words are actually exchanged. It's this relationship between the captor-captive that differentiates the film from other similarly-themed ones. The time spent by Zamperini in the Japanese camps form the moments that you'll carry home with you in your mind.

Once Jolie finds her legs in the unusual position of director, her craft and skill go from imitative to impressive. She keeps a realistic grip on proceedings, always on the verge but never actually going overboard with theatrics and hero-worship. It only helps that she has a talented group of writers having her back, among them the talented directors/writers/brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. She has a keen eye for small personal moments, all the while also keeping in full view the film's ultimate message - the will to live and to survive can overcome any hardships life throws at you. Plus, she manages to extract the best from all of her actors, which is no small feat for an inexperienced director.

On the technical side, cinematographer Roger Deakins deserves applause for beautifully capturing the small nuances of the war-era. From combat sequences to prisoner camps, every single scene and location is stunningly shot. The special effects are inconsistent at best, good during some scenes and dodgy in others. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat is haunting and fitting.

Although Jolie might be in charge, the real star and anchor of the film is Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini. He starts off as a rebellious but naive teenager who garners worldwide fame for his performance in the Olympics, and O'Connell plays it simple and with a straight face. With him getting stranded and food hard to come by, O'Connell's physical transformation is remarkable. A toothpick-like face and an even slimmer waist, with ribs poking out, you cannot help but watch awestruck as he tries to hold on to his sanity. Finally, with his capture by the Japanese and the almost-daily beatings he has to take, he looks every bit the war-hardened prisoner who is on the verge of losing all hope, but still has a point to prove. For those two hours or so, he is Zamperini and Zamperini is him. O'Connell is undoubtedly the frontrunner in this year's Oscar race for his nuanced and absolutely mesmerizing performance.

Even supporting players leave an indelible mark in your mind. Domhnall Gleeson as Phil, Louis's crew mate who is also stranded alongside him, gives a moving performance and acts as the perfect foil for O'Connell's histrionics. Miyavi plays Watanabe, the menacing jailor with a supreme superiority complex, and he actually makes you hate him so much that you have to admire his performance. Rest of the prisoners at the war camp are more than effective, not just acting as background noise.

Unbroken lowers your expectations with a promising but unspectacular beginning, only to take you on a moving and inspirational journey from a small town in California to prison camps in the heart of Japan. While it may not be path-breaking cinema, it marks an assured turn behind the lens for Jolie and star-making performance from Jack O'Connell. It's a great start to the year for world cinema, one you should join in.

Piyush Chopra