Unbroken (2014)

Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini
Jack O'Connell as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken
Unbroken is based on the life story of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini was an American athlete who competed in the 1936 Olympics, became a bomb aimer in the USAAF in WWII, survived being shot down over the Pacific, and spent 47 days adrift in a dinghy on the open sea before eventually being captured by the Japanese.

The film moves back and forwards in time, opening with a bombing raid in the Pacific, where the plane of Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is attacked by Japanese fighters, before having to make an emergency landing. 

The film then shows Zamperini's childhood in flashback where, as the son of Italian immigrants, he is bullied by the other local boys and becomes a trouble-making tearaway. Eventually, with the encouragement of his brother, he reluctantly takes up running after discovering he has a talent for it, with his being taunted as a “dumb dago” spurring him on to succeed on the running track. Zamperini goes on to compete in the 5,000 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

In between the flashbacks is Zamperini's WWII survival story. He and his crew are sent on a mission to look for a downed B-24 bomber. They are searching over the ocean when a mechanical failure sends their plane crashing into the sea. Zamperini is forced to release himself from the submerged bomber and swim back to the surface. 

Only three of the crew have survived, Zamperini, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock). Together they drift in a pair of linked dinghies as sharks begin to circle. The Men try and keep their spirits up and to feed themselves, catching a seabird but finding it inedible. Eventually they manage to catch fish and then a shark. 

When they finally spot a plane they think is coming to rescue them, it's a Japanese bomber that repeatedly strafes them instead. Eventually they are rescued, but it's out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they are captured by the Japanese armed forces, not exactly noted for their friendliness towards enemy prisoners.

Original film poster for Unbroken
Original poster
The survival at sea part of Zamperini's story is the most difficult to dramatise, but the film does a fair job. It's main fault is how strangely well-groomed Zamperini in particular looks as he reaches the 47th day in an open boat. His hair is only slightly mussed, not frazzled as it would be after so long under a sweltering sun, and his facial hair is no more than a stubbly, neatly trimmed goatee.

Unbroken is based on the book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand. The film attracted additional attention because it was the second (after the relatively obscure In the Land of Blood and Honey) to be directed by Angelina Jolie. 

It's commendable in a way that Jolie wanted to tell this story. She clearly intended to make an uplifting film about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. But the treatment is clichéd, even hackneyed, particularly in its earlier scenes of Zamperini's childhood and development into a top athlete.

The film has a surprisingly distinguished set of four screenwriters, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, and with such impeccable credentials you would expect the script to be a lot better than it is. But it trades in clichéd, would-be inspirational dialogue like ”You can do this...you just gotta believe you can” and, in an early piece of foreshadowing, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” It's not clear which one of the film's four writers was responsible for that gem, but it sounds decidedly arse about face. Presumably he means that a lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain.

Jack O'Connell and Miyavi
Jack O'Connell (centre) and Miyavi (far right)
Jolie's interest though is mostly in the war part of the story. The Olympics stuff and Zamperini's post war reconciliation with some of his tormentors get short shrift in favour of scenes of punishment and endurance.

At the Japanese prison camp, Zamperini is singled out for regular beatings and punishments by sadistic Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Perhaps Jolie's preparation for the film involved watching Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1982) because, like that film, she's cast a Japanese pop star, in this case Miyavi, as the main Japanese character. Towards the end of the war, when Zamperini and his fellow inmates are sent to work in a Japanese labour camp, they find the promoted Watanabe is now in charge there as well, leading to more mistreatment of Zamperini.

It's never clear exactly why Watanabe fixates on Zamperini, but the casting and performance of the androgynous Miyavi emphasises the possibility that Watanabe felt some kind of sexual frisson from his behaviour, although this is not an area the film is all that keen to explore. 

In real life, many more POWs were attacked and beaten by him and it wasn't Zamperini alone who other prisoners were forced to repeatedly punch. By focusing so much on one particular tormentor who mistreats one particular prisoner, the film does run the risk of making it look as if prisoners were mistreated by just one or two bad apples, instead of as a matter of policy and routine by the Japanese army.

B-24 Liberators on a bombing raid
B-24 Liberators of the CGI air force
As well as its noted screenwriters, the film assembles some other top talent behind the camera, including cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Alexandre Desplat. But some of the technical aspects are disappointing. Its CGI aircraft are a little computer gamey, especially in an opening dogfight sequence that looks like something Michael Bay would shoot, and there's a particularly phoney-looking scene of B-29 bombers flying overhead towards the end. 

The film's best element is probably its leading man, Jack O' Connell. O' Connell is a very promising actor, and he certainly does his best with this part, but the script never really gets under the skin of his character, and he's mainly required to look stoical and to endure the depredations visited upon him.

Unbroken received a very mixed reception from the critics, perhaps because it arrived with awards hype that it could never hope to justify. It's a generally competent but mediocre effort, and you can't help feeling that Zamperini's life story deserved a better treatment than this.

A follow up, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, with a mostly different cast and crew, was released in 2018.


Year: 2014
Genre: Biopic / War Drama
Country: USA
Director: Angelina Jolie

Cast Jack O'Connell (Louis Zamperini), Domhnall Gleeson (Russell Allen Phillips, ‘Phil’), Miyavi (Cpl Mutsuhiro Watanabe, ‘The Bird’), Garrett Hedlund (Commander John Fitzgerald), Finn Wittrock (Mac), Jai Courtney (Cup), John Magaro (Frank Tinker), Luke Treadaway (Miller), Alex Russell (older Pete), John D'leo (young Pete), Vincenzo Amato (Anthony), Ross Anderson (Blackie), Maddalena Ischiale (Louise), Louis McIntosh (Harris), Jordan Patrick Smith (Clift), Spencer Lofranco (Harry Brooks), Stephen J. Douglas (Clarence Douglas), Marcus Vanco (Lambert)

Screenplay Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand  Producers Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer, Erwin Stoff  Cinematography Roger Deakins  Production designer Jon Hutman  Editors Tim Squyres, William Goldenberg  Music Alexandre Desplat  Costume designer Louise Frogley

Running time 137 mins  Colour

Production company Jolie Pas, 3 Arts, Legendary Pictures  Distributor Universal


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