Just to clarify, Unbroken is the jaw-dropping true story of Olympic runner and Second World War veteran Louis Zamperini, even though it’s the woman behind the camera who is drawing all the attention. Thankfully that’s not because Angelina Jolie fancies herself as an artsy director with a bagful of camera tricks. Indeed, soon after settling down to watch this film, you might even forget it’s the one-time wild child who is calling the shots.
Jolie takes a conventional yet confident approach to a sprawling tale and leaves the shock-and-awe tactics to her young star, Jack O’Connell. The former Skins actor gives a lion-hearted performance as a man who didn’t believe in himself but kept fighting anyway. He’s made the leap from TV to the cinema screen with walloping force this year – first in Starred Up and more recently in ’71 – and with this turn, he should be grabbing some Oscar attention, too. Apart from his flawless, never overcooked New Yawk “Eye-talian‘” accent, he instinctively knows how much heat to bring and when to bring it.
Zamperini’s story could so easily have been an overwrought melodrama because he endured so much, telling it all later in a biography which the Coen brothers have adapted along with tear-jerker extraordinaire Richard LaGravenese (Bridges of Madison County, PS I Love You) and William Nicholson (Les Miserables). Inevitably, it’s gruelling at times with Zamperini suffering special cruelty at the hands of the Japanese officer (Takamasa Ishihara, also known as Miyavi) in charge of the PoW camp where he is shipped after being rescued from the Pacific – oh, and that’s after the plane crash that kills most of his army buddies. But far from wallowing in the agony, this account sends the spirit soaring.
The impact is doubled because it is, effectively, two survival films rolled into one, with Jolie using Zamperini’s memories of the Berlin Games in 1936 (with Hitler presiding) as a touchstone to measure his emotional staying power when the going really gets tough. The Coen influence can be felt particularly in the childhood scenes where little Louis (an intense CJ Valleroy) shows a worrying amount of cheek, but it’s that perceived flaw that develops into an iron will and sets him apart from his peers. He becomes an almost messianic, Cool Hand Luke-type of figure for others to idolise.
How true his story is in terms of his influence and other small but pivotal details is debatable, but there is a bigger hump to get over in how far removed Zamperini is from the crowd. Domhnall Gleeson’s “Phil” is the closest to being a friend and that’s largely because he’s forced to share Zamperini’s company on board a small life raft after that crash. Later, at the PoW camp, Garrett Hedlund plays his superior officer who, nonetheless, looks up to Zamperini without ever really getting to know him.
Jolie faces the same problem in making Zamperini relatable and while turning to his childhood offers some clues as to where he derived his strength, there are hints of aloofness and even arrogance that she seems too embarrassed to explore (not surprising, having been a personal friend). She either makes light of his cockiness – helped greatly by O’Connell’s natural, roguish charm – or else she cuts back to the childhood insecurities that may have initiated these tendencies.
Zamperini’s dynamic with his Japanese tormentor is another tantalising indication of the more complex character that might have emerged because “The Bird” (as he’s referred to by the PoWs) recognises a kindred spirit – another loner with a large chip on his shoulder. Needless to say, Zamperini lived – and survived – by a very different set of values and his heroism cannot be in doubt. Whatever motivated his stubborn refusal to roll over doesn’t lessen the uplifting, inspirational pull of his story. In some ways, the enigma enhances the legend and that is sure to live on long after Zamperini’s passing this year, only months before the release of this remarkable film.