The ingredients are there, but this bun dried out in Jolie’s oven

Angelina Jolie’s second foray into feature directing (she also has a doc under her belt), Unbroken, is the real-life story of Louie Zamperini (O’Connell), an Olympic runner turned US Navy bombardier. 

Present at the 1936 ‘Nazi’ Olympics, he’s due to run competitively in Tokyo’s 1940 games when instead he finds himself running bombing raids over Japan out of Hawaii. Following a maintenance blunder all but he and two other members of his squadron survive a terrible crash over the Pacific. Long weeks pass before they’re discovered … by the enemy. Zamperini then endures hellish circumstances, with only the memory of his mother’s gnocchi to comfort him. Yum.

He’s unbroken – we get that
There’s a sort of plodding inevitability that runs throughout the proceedings – from one location to the next. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with Zamperini’s story, the title itself alludes to the fact that the film’s protagonist will remain intact, and despite his undoubtedly horrific ordeals, we rarely get any tangible sense that he is truly in any jeopardy. This is perhaps due to a lack of real insight into the character’s emotional and psychological state. Yes, we see him almost devoured by sharks, almost succumb to starvation, beaten to within an inch of his life – but the bruises heal and he remains, as do we, opposed and invulnerable to all of it. 

The audience is left to watch from a distance too great, as all these things happen to Zamperini, to fully understand their impact on him. It’s interesting to note that in the final text cards (de rigueur in all ‘true story’ movies) we’re informed that following the war, ‘Zamp’ spends much of his life suffering from post-traumatic stress – and it is with this text that we begin to understand the personal cost to the man. Sadly it’s too little and too late. Outward resolve and internal struggle are one and the same here, meaning we are locked outside – Jolie simply shows us Zamperini’s triumph and fails to give us a sense of what it ultimately means.

O brothers, where art thou?
Little blame for any of this can be laid at the feet of O’Connell, whose rugged good looks and naturalistic performance are the best reasons to see this film. He’s a throwback to Britain’s new wave cinema of the ‘60s and continues a winning streak that includes appearances on C4’s Skins and last year’s ’71. 

Here he’s been let down by a poorly conceived ‘by the numbers’ screenplay (unbelievably written in part by the Coen Brothers) and uninspired direction. There are moments of groan-worthy dialogue and Jolie’s directorial hand is ‘safe’ rather than solid. The functional photography (by seasoned Coens regular Roger Deakins) is difficult to fault, but equally difficult to enthuse over. 

Drier than a camel’s gullet
The hallmark of a true story are surprises – idiosyncratic details that would be hard to dream up in a writer’s room. Here we only occasionally get genuine surprises to enliven the proceedings. Moments such as Zamperini’s sudden bare-handed capture (and subsequent beating and eating) of a shark, during a bout of desperate hunger, are sadly few and far between. 

For a film that spends a good portion of its considerable running time stranded at sea, this is an unforgivably dry viewing experience.



Dir: Angelina Jolie; US war drama, 2014, 137 mins; Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock

Premiered January 9
Playing Nationwide

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