Louie Zamperini has an incredible life story to tell. The odds were already stacked against him from a young age, growing up as one of four children of an immigrant family in Depression-era California. In spite of this, he made a name for himself as a competitive distance runner, represented America in the Berlin Olympics, served his country as a bombardier in WWII, survived a plane crash that left him stranded for 47 days in the Pacific Ocean, and lived out the remainder of the war in a Japanese POW camp under the harshest conditions imaginable.
Unbroken is just not that good a film; A clichéd exercise that reaches for artificial inspiration while saying very little about the figure who serves as its subject. The problem is not in the story, but in the storytelling, as it fails to shape Zamperini's harrowing saga into any kind of effective structure.
No less than four writers took a hack a various drafts of the screenplay, including Oscar winning scribes Joel & Ethan Coen and past nominees Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. The murky collision of structures and styles is so evident, you can almost separate various segments of the film based on who probably wrote them.
They open with an aerial firefight from which Zamperini's B-24 bomber limps back to base looking like Swiss cheese on wings, intercut with poorly timed flashbacks to his youth and Olympic experience. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for this initially jumpy chronology, except to start off with a combat sequence for fear that the audience would be immediately bored otherwise.
Louie Zamperini 'the man' was no doubt a complex human being, like all of us, but Louie Zamperini 'the screen character' is rather one-dimensional. Despite a hungry performance from newcomer Jack O'Connell (literally hungry for most of it), we don't end up learning much about him other than all the hardships he had to endure.
This is never more true than in the film's even more sluggish and numbingly repetitive POW camp chapters. It's here where the man-vs-nature drama jerks sharply into a conflict of man-vs-man, as we meet the nasty Cpl. Watanabe (Japanese pop star Miyavi) who canes, whips, bludgeons, and verbally lashes our hero for the majority of the remaining hour and a half.
As satisfying as it may be to think of a wholesome American boy bending but never breaking under such physical and psychological duress, the whole thing borders on misery porn because the film doesn't seem to be trying to make any kind of point about what we are witnessing. It's thematically barren, save for the pedestrian notion of “if you can take it, you can make it”.
Worse yet, it cannot shake the icky stigma of depicting the Japanese as sadistic monsters. A vague explanation is offered for Watanabe's erratic cruelty in a single shot at the end of Zamperini's ordeal, but it still hardly counts as fair or unbiased treatment of a potentially interesting character. The bottom line is that Unbroken hardly seems like the declaration of forgiveness that the closing postscripts declare it to be.
Neither high-concept narrative nor deep-digging character study, it's not even formally impressive enough to consistently hold our attention for nearly two-and-a-half hours. That's not to say it's made incompetently. A lot of it just feels... bland.
Alexandre Desplat has perhaps never composed a score as anonymous-sounding as this; All the editorial and sound work is credible, but hardly involving; And Roger Deakins may deserve credit for some painterly compositions here and there, but the vast majority of the camera work is quite utilitarian for a master photographer of his pedigree.
** out of ****