With the wintery chill sending the mercury plummeting and our teeth a chattering,we all seek the cosy confines of our local cinema to thaw out and banish away those wintery blues, for at this time of year, that succession of films prefixed with the soon to be trending, #Oscars2015, come hurtling into town. Angelina Jolie’s heroic biopic of former US Olympic athlete, soldier and prisoner of war, Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), is certainly a story to warm the coldest of souls and inspire us as we bring in a new year; but is the Oscar buzz the real deal?
Following up from her somewhat disappointing feature film debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, the early scenes of Unbroken show promise that Jolie may be becoming as astute behind the camera as she is in front of it. Opening with a gloriously captured and choreographed aerial dogfight between a US Bomber and a pack of Japanese Aichi’s, the visuals are achingly beautiful and the pacing relentless, as we switch from character to character, and shuttle through the planes cockpit, all whilst being pelted with a barrage of molten lead and sound. Scenes like this should be savoured since, as the bullet ridden aircraft makes a safe crash landing on a calm desert island out in the Pacific, the film, sadly, comes crashing down with it.
As Zamperini’s remarkable tale of survival plays out from this point on, some initial flashbacks to his earlier years intersect the main story; we learn of his rebellious youth, right through to his triumphant rise to becoming a US Olympic athlete. These moments are wonderfully put together by Jolie, whose work here with cinematographer Roger Deakins creates a nostalgic ambience that harks back to the ‘Golden Age’ of America, as if the images were pulled straight from a postcard. This insight into Zamperini’s remarkable rise is incredibly fascinating to learn about but, yet again, these moments are to be savoured as the film gets stuck in a rut.
What Louis Zamperini goes through is staggering to comprehend; from being lost at sea to surviving the physical and emotional traumas of becoming a prisoner of war, it comes with no surprise that his story has been adapted for the silver screen. It possesses all the hallmarks of a tale that should pull at the heart strings but, with the upmost respect, there is a real struggle to feel anything but frustration as we labour through scene after scene of punishment.
Of course, Jolie is merely presenting the facts as they are, but therein lies the films biggest criticism. This is an emotional, human rise against adversity and Jolie appears to struggle with digging out the soul of her characters. Jack O’Connell, whose rampant rise to stardom following a number of successful turns, is an unfortunate victim of this. Bad hair-dye aside, he possesses the looks and the charm to fit the role of the young, cheeky Zamperini, but as his situation worsens, O’Connell suffers from effectively being restricted to pulling pained expressions in Jolie’s close ups.
This is Zamperini’s story, but there is an ensemble of characters we meet along the way who are about as developed as Nazi #34 in Indiana Jones, and Zamperini’s interaction with them is fleeting. It’s no surprise then that the film’s emotional peak comes during Zamperini’s scenes at sea with Lieutenant Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), with the two realising they have to work as one if they are to survive the ordeal.
It is disappointing to concede that this tale will not be in contention for an Oscar and this is no slight on Jolie who has clearly invested herself in to the project and formed a relationship with Zamperini to be able to unearth every detail of his plight. However, focussing on the factual detail of his tortures and hardships rather than his dynamics with the other people with whom he crossed paths during his time in Japan and his own psychology through that period, results in a second half that falls flat and underwhelms when we should be cheering his triumph. This said, I defy anyone to walk away from this film with anything but admiration for a remarkable human being.
R.I.P. Mr Zamperini.
Unbroken is out in Cinemas on 26th December 2014
Words > Sam Lawrence