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Non-Review Review: Unbroken

The true story of Louis Zamperini is absolutely fascinating. It lends itself to this sort of big spectacle. It has everything you need for a movie that might clean up during awards season: a historical setting; a war; a sporting story about triumph of adversity; incredible physical transformations from the cast; a character enduring incredible hardship and coming out the other side. These are the sorts of ingredients that make a Best Picture contender. Unbroken just heaps more and more on top of these already alluring elements.

It isn’t the terrible and messy script that ultimately defeats Unbroken, with beloved filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen at the top of the bill. It isn’t the pedestrian unchallenging direction, either. It isn’t Alexandre Desplat’s condescending and patronising score, that doesn’t trust the audience to determine what they should be feeling from one moment to the next. It is not even the cynical Coldplay song playing over the closing credits, to put a pleasant life-affirming spin on events.

The Oscar race is on...

The Oscar race is on…

The detail that really shatter Unbroken is the fact that all of this has been very carefully and meticulously calibrated to check off the requisite items on the big Oscar check list. Unbroken is just as mechanical and lifeless a production as Transformers 4, but it happens to be built for a different purpose. There is no energy here, no enthusiasm, no emotion. It is just a bunch of things that have been successful in other stories heaped on top of one another, hoping to hit the high score on that fateful morning in January 2015.

Despite managing to eat up an incredible amount of attention and discussion in the larger Oscar race – taking attention off far more deserving contenders – Unbroken is a complete and utter misfire.

"This is what happens to anybody who suggests Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence is a better Japanese prisoner of war film."

“This is what happens to anybody who suggests Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence is a better Japanese prisoner of war film.”

There is a strangely efficient quality to how Unbroken moves through its various clichés. It is trying cover as much ground as possible, to check as many of those vital boxes as it can. As such, it breezes through details of Louis Zamperini’s life that might easily have provided their own film. However, there’s no time to dwell on any of these elements, so we go from the “sporting underdog” story to the “lost at sea” story to the “prisoner of war” story without missing a beat.

There is a lot going on here. It takes the movie over an hour for Zamperini to arrive at the prison camp so prominently featured in the trailers and promotional material. However, that hour is spent just covering ground instead of exploring any of it. Characters seem more like plot functions than fully-formed beings. Despite a solid central performance from Jack O’Connell, Zamperini never feels like anything more than an outline where the protagonist is supposed to fit.

Yeah, it feels a bit like that sometimes...

Yeah, it feels a bit like that sometimes…

The movie does not have dialogue so much as it has statements of theme, minimally coated because there’s only so much time the movie can spend on this sequence before it moves on. So Zamperini’s flashbacks to his childhood take him to a religious sermon. The priest articulates a powerful message about forgiveness and temperance. “Love thy enemy,” the priest helpfully sums up, for those inattentive viewers who might have otherwise missed the point of the film. All that is missing is a flashing neon sign.

If you are wondering how that might possibly fit with the broader context of the movie, don’t worry – the closing title cards helpfully spell it out for you. Characters repeat the idea throughout the film. When Zamperini considers murdering the commandant of his prison camp, a fellow prisoner advises him, “That’s not how we beat him. We beat him by making it to the end of the war alive.” Returning home unsuccessfully from the Olympics, his brother explains, “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”

Mining that Oscar gold...

Mining that Oscar gold…

War is hell. That is a pretty common theme for movies set during major conflicts. There is something almost endearing about the earnestness of Unbroken‘s core themes. Underneath those “Best Original Song” and “Best Original Score” contenders, if you look past all the clichés and the stock sequences, it feels like Angelina Jolie might actually be trying to say something sincere about the virtue of forgiveness. However, the message is delivered in such a clumsy way, surrounded by such cynicism, that it is impossible to take seriously.

At the climax of Unbroken, we inevitably get the scene where Louis Zamperini earns that adjective – where he demonstrates his incredible spirit under horrifying conditions. However, the moment comes out of nowhere. It seems to happen at the point where it does because the movie is approaching the two hour mark, and we really don’t want to run too long here. So we get a completely forced sequence of Zamperini demonstrating that his captivity has not broken his spirit.

Lost at sea...

Lost at sea…

The real Louis Zamperini enduring horrifying conditions, and lived an amazing life. It is impossible not to be awed by his accomplishments and by his fortitude; his dignity. That dignity is sorely lacking from Unbroken, which seems entirely unconvinced that its audience will understand what is happening unless the soaring and redemptive music is turned up to eleven as Zamperini’s tormentor breaks down in tears. We get it; Zamperini defeated his torturer by refusing to yield. People who torture other people are probably unlikely to respond well to that.

However – in my (admittedly) limited experience of brutal inhumane torture institutions – it seems completely surreal to have a torturer break down in tears, falling to his hands and knees in front of all the guards and the prisoners and his subject whining like a baby whose toy has been taken away. That would seem to be something that they should warn you against in the torturer’s handbook. Sure, it looks good on film with a soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat, but you have to think of your credibility as a sadistic torturer. It’s just gone.

"All we hear is Radio Tokyo, Radio Goo-Goo, Radio What's New?"

“All we hear is Radio Tokyo, Radio Goo-Goo, Radio What’s New?”

Unbroken is a spectacularly terrible and cynical piece of work, one that really shouldn’t fool anybody come awards season. Yep. Let’s leave that closing line standing to posterity.

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