I was ten years old when I produced my first piece of propaganda. The homeroom of my school was named after ex-student and Victoria Cross recipient Robert Grieve. We were dutifully informed of the heroism Captain Grieve demonstrated in defence of our nation, bombing and killing two gun crews in the First World War and sustaining serious wounds in the process. At my teacher’s urging, I reproduced a crude drawing of his feats, a cartoon figure sketched tossing a grenade towards enemy machineguns. I didn’t understand the moral complexity of celebrating murder, nor the political machinations that underlay the so-called ‘Great’ War. That wasn’t the point of course – the point was to applaud the noble heroism of an ‘Old Boy’.
Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken strives for the same nobility as it tells the story of another war hero, American Olympian and war survivor Louis Zamperini. It’s more sophisticated than my scribblings, certainly, but its celebration of Zamperini’s life similarly smooths over the roughness of war, positioned as it is in the no-man’s-land between hagiography and authenticity. Unbroken hews closely to the specifics of Zamperini’s genuinely astonishing life story; however, its stately, respectable approach saps the film of the inspiration and emotion it so desperately strives for.
This is a film that does very little wrong, admittedly. The presence of Roger Deakins ensures that it’s consistently well-shot, even if there are few truly great shots (an aerial shot of a throng of coal-blackened soldiers chief among them). Jack O’Connell delivers a confident performance as Zamperini, inhabiting the physicality of his character (even though he’s never convincing as an Italian-American, even with his shoe-polish hairdo). The script – drafted by a couple guys well-versed in ‘Oscar bait’, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese, before being punched up by the Coen brothers – is absent poor characterisation or clunky dialogue, yes, but it also lacks any moments to distinguish itself from its many World War Two neighbours.
That said, the opening third is promising, executed with rat-a-tat pacing and sharp exposition that hints at the Coens’ input. We power through two timelines with a compelling forward momentum, observing Zamperini’s journey from mischievous youth to accomplished Olympian alongside his trials as a bombardier in the war. There’s nothing especially fresh here, but it’s executed with such an accomplished energy that it’s hard not to be swept along (and disregard the consequences of the barrage of bombs launched by our hero).
The exact point where we shift gears is indicated by an ominous subtitle – “Day 3” – marking the time since Zamperini found respite on a liferaft alongside a couple fellow soldiers in the wake of their bomber’s catastrophic failure. That “Day 3” denotes exactly what you’d expect: there’s many more days to come, spent traversing through a whole series of frying pans and fires. From the raft to an enemy warship, then internment in a Japanese prison camp ruled over by a young, soft-skinned officer referred to as “The Bird” (Miyavi).
From this point on, Unbroken throws off its crowd-pleasing cloak and reveals itself as the prisoner of war film it was all along. It abandons its two-pronged timeline approach and assumes a funereal pace to suit its grimmer tone, descending into the miserable reality of the P.O.W. existence. Cinema has no responsibility to please its crowd, and I would be a poor critic if I were to dismiss this section of the film out of hand simply because it’s not as ‘fun’ as the forty-five minute stretch that preceded it. There’s no reason to apologise for a hefty dose of cinematic masochism when depicting the (real-life) ordeal of Zamperini in captivity.
The issue with the second half of Unbroken is not its masochism. In fact, for all the brutality on display, Jolie is overly considerate of sensitive audience members (and, presumably, conservative Oscar voters), mostly cutting away from the violence inflicted on the imprisoned Allied men. It’s too clean, too ‘classy’ to convey the soldiers’ suffering. The real issue is that the film has nothing new or compelling to say about the P.O.W. experience. It lacks the humour of Slaughterhouse-Five or the big ideas of Bridge on the River Kwai or The Deer Hunter. The screenplay briefly chronicles the prisoners’ slim attempts at rebellion (stolen rice, sketched plans) but eschews the derring-do of The Great Escape.
Neither is Unbroken a humanist depiction of one man pushed to his limits etcetera, even if it feints in that direction. For example, emaciated Zamperini’s Olympian aura is punctured when he fails in a footrace against a Japanese soldier. This is one of the strongest scenes in the back stretch, hinting at a darker film – an excoriation of the notion of a war hero – that never eventuates. Instead, Jolie strives for an ‘inspirational’ film built on resilience, sacrifice and forgiveness. Shackled to the specifics of the real-life story, she herself stumbles across the finish fine with an awkward postscript assuring us that Zamperini learnt the value of forgiveness in his later years (despite producing no such evidence in the film proper).
In its attempts to convey the importance of sacrifice and forgiveness, the film transparently positions its hero as a Christ-figure, a played-out bit of symbolism that sits awkwardly with the reality of his ordeal. Early scenes present a young Zamperini listening to a priest intoning the importance of such traits as the camera lingers on a crucified Christ (with an informality that seems historically inaccurate given the era, if you want to nitpick). We shouldn’t be too surprised, then, when Zamperini’s climactic act of defiance sees him balancing a wooden beam above his head in the classic Christ pose.
Unbroken’s blatant iconography would be forgivable had it sold its protagonist as this messianic figure. But Zamperini is a small-scale hero. Outside of the aforementioned act of defiance, he doesn’t inspire his fellow prisoners. Outside of his refusal to record propaganda for the Japanese, he largely keeps his head down and avoids conscious disobedience. His status as an ex-Olympian – and, it is implied, an object of desire for “the Bird” – brings extra punishment down on his head, but he’s hardly providing an “atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.” The rift between such grand symbolism and gritty realism is never satisfactorily resolved, and it ultimately breaks Unbroken.