I was cynical about this movie because critics told me to be. “It’s bad”, they wrote, “don’t bother.” But I watched it and thought: it’s not so bad. Good, even, in some parts. Basically redundant I suppose, but not bad. So why then was it panned? And why then did I feel much the same way upon viewing The Monuments Men, also derided by critics – maybe it wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t the disaster I’d been lead to believe.
So now I’m worried that critics are taking pot-shots at “celebrity” directors. There’s almost nothing conventionally roastable about George Clooney, yet Tina Fey and Amy Pohler still found a way to mock him for making what I thought was a decent movie. He pretended to be a good sport about it, but they hit him where it hurts. If Kim Kardashian was standing behind the camera, fine, open season. But Angelina Jolie has paid her dues and proves it with a movie that is technically sound, and both made movies this year that contribute to a proud historical record for their country. Clint Eastwood, another actor-turned-director did the same with American Sniper, and though I’d say it’s the weakest of the three, it’s being hailed (although not uniformly) as the best.
Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a true tale that’s been simmering in different Hollywood pots for the past 70 years. He was an Olympic runner who competed in the Berlin Games and then joined the army just a few years later after the Pearl Harbour attack. As a bombardier in world war two, he and his fellow crewmates were sent out on a search and rescue mission on a plane that couldn’t hack it, and went down due to mechanical failure. One of only three survivors, he then spent more than 6 weeks at sea, barely surviving only to be washed onto Japanese soil where he brutally treated as a POW for the remainder of the war.
You can see why people thought this would make a good movie; it moves episodically from one huge hurdle to the next, a great showcase for the human spirit (and for American spirit in particular). In fact, it’s a relic, the kind of war movie that casts the Japanese as “the enemy” pure and simple, and its indomitable American protagonist as the uncomplicated hero. But what should have been great turns out merely to be good. It’s beautifully shot but generic – we’ve seen the castaway thing a million times, and the POW thing a million more. Jolie adds nothing of her own to these events.
Jack O’Connell impresses again in a physically demanding role (he’s even better in Starred Up) and the cast is strong, but no one is given much more than the standard paces to work with, the script being surprisingly traditional after a Cohen brothers treatment. The movie opens with some nerve-wracking battle scenes in the sky, but from the moment the plane splashes down, we’re drowning in misery and degradation.
While Zamperini’s story is one of redemption and forgiveness, Unbroken shows only despair. Zamperini’s character is lost, a sense of triumph unearned, and the movie stirs emotion only by default.