Biopics are often a tricky affair, because filmmakers are challenged to hit a very delicate balance when choosing which parts of their subject’s lives to cover. For some, it pays to focus on just one pivotal event (as in Lincoln) or up to a certain point in their achievements (Elizabeth), while others prefer to take an all-encompassing recap (The Iron Lady). Working with a life as eventful as Louis Zamperini’s (portrayed by Jack O’Connell) made this consideration even more complicated in Unbroken because there are four distinct threads in his life, each arguably deserving of its own feature-length production.
First, there was Zamperini’s troubled childhood as the bullied son of Italian immigrants. This fed into his obsession with running and eventual success as an Olympic athlete. Then, World War II struck and he became a bombardier, which culminated in being stuck at sea for 47 days on a life-raft after a mission goes wrong. Finally, he would spend years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, refusing to compromise his principles, even in the face of brutal punishments.
Director Angelina Jolie decides to cover all of these aspects, framing his wartime exploits as the film’s present and interspersing it with lengthy flashbacks to his pre-war experiences. Having met Zamperini prior to his death earlier this year, Jolie clearly made a conscious decision to commemorate his rich life and underline exactly how much adversity he had triumphed over.
While it was a touching sign of the director’s respect, the sheer volume of events, and the disparate ways in which they are portrayed, unfortunately works against the film. Zamperini’s athletics career is built up slowly, with close to an hour of the running time used to show his sportsmanship and dedication. These scenes carry a tangible personal weight and the slow burn creates palpable tension even when audiences watch a race they already know the conclusion to.
By contrast, the wartime scenes run at a faster rate, preventing any of the horrors from truly sinking in. Although Jolie pulls no punches in showing the treatment of the prisoners, the non-stop barrage of abuse faced by Zamperini can be desensitising due to its graphic presentation and unbalanced tempo.
Had the pacing been more evenly matched with the scenes of his youth or had some of the brutality been edited out, there might have been more of an impact. Even so, two of the most powerful scenes take place in the camp, with Japanese officer Watanabe (Miyavi) finding ways to punish Zamperini with increasing cruelty, only for the American to hold his own.
The other big problem is the score. Alexandre Desplat’s string-heavy compositions are beautiful, no doubt, but they often overpower the action. Some of the best moments take place when there is a lack of music – an unannounced shark attack or a sudden outburst of violence from a commanding officer – proving that sign-posting the action can be more of a hindrance than a help.
That being said, the film excels with its cast. The acting is superb and, were reviews based on performances alone, there would be nothing to complain about. O’Connell is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most talented and overlooked actors of his generation.
Shifting from frantic bursts of energy to involuntary flinching at the sight of his tormentors to a final, hollow resignation before realising he will survive the war after all, O’Connell convincingly inhabits every inch of Zamperini and, along with his work in Starred Up and ’71, delivers what might be the best year of acting in a long time.
The remaining characters are, by necessity, only there to fill the supporting slots, but they are played with equal commitment and aplomb. Of particular note are Domhnall Gleeson as Zamperini’s pilot, Russell Phillips, and Miyavi’s genuinely chilling turn as Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Credit should also be given for the cinematography and the art direction, both helping to create believable and often beautiful environments for the story to unfold in.
Unbroken certainly had the potential to be better, but it is still a very good effort. A bit more time in the editing room would have helped, but when it comes to portraying a strong-willed and inspirational individual, the film does a commendable job.