What Firth’s The Railway Man should have been
Everyone recalls the tenacious vigor and promise Angelina Jolie showed in her early films. Without saying she rode coat-tails, having Jon Voight as a father certainly added gravitas to the up and coming star who arguably peaked with Eastwood’s 20’s gem Changeling in 2008. Like her former director, Jolie has travelled a similar path into directing territory perhaps out of genuine interest or even a desire to break away from the media caricature of ‘Brad Pitt’s wife’. While former forays failed to make a significant dent in the box office, and audience memory, Unbroken, smeared virally across every platform possible, is an amiable breakthrough for the fast-learning director.
From the outset, Unbroken felt destined to be a PG-13 hit that would appeal widely without any tail sting or risk in terms of content. However, it’s less forgettable than previously imagined.
Sitting comfortably between Crowe’s WW1 son search and the long-barreled brow sweat of American Sniper, Unbroken kicks off with an allied aerial assault somewhere across the pacific while Germans and Japs wreak havoc across Europe and the palm fronded sand traps beneath the bomb carriage. Coupled with a brief, but apt, backstory about how young Louis Zamperini, Jack O’Connell, becomes introduced to running, and his subsequent rise to Olympic fame, Jolie handles the introduction well drawing audiences in sharply without dropping back to a laggy expositional ‘what-happened-to-this-guy-from-birth’ which other films can draw out for up to 45 min.
Painful, exasperating scenes of Phil, Domhnall Gleeson, and Zamperini at sea offer up new territory for Cast Away fans making a large section of this film read more like All Is Lost meets Spielberg’s The Pacific. As it turns out, open water is the least of Louis’ worries as life on land proves just as exhausting and rudimentary. To be able to survive such a record number of head wounds makes viewers wonder why Zamperini didn’t throw his lot in with the Olympic boxers over sprinting. Filmic embellishment surely permeates several scenes but Jolie’s decision with regards to what she shows, and doesn’t show, is impressively restrained. It is the small nuances which speak volumes here. Something as minute as the distant swastika’s at the Olympic stadium or the missing fingernails on Hedlund’s solemn commander Fitzgerald create a cognitive scrapbook of wartime horrors that never feel clichéd or out of place.
For what felt like a tame, crowd pleasing take on an extreme human survival true story, Unbroken delves into brutal detail – that which only could have come from a true recount – , forcing us to watch as war throws its unending horror upon one magnificent man. The lenses hover over broken noses and gaunt skeletors as they shuffle barefoot through horrifying winterscapes and the disease infested heat. Not as violent as Fury – but for two films set roughly in the same period they couldn’t be more polarizing. Paralleling To End All Wars and Rescue Dawn, Unbroken has less of an ensemble but this doesn’t detract from the grim reality of being lower down the Japanese order. If anything, this allows the toothy O’Connell to shine in the psychologically injured lead role. Despite repeated fadeouts becoming noticeable toward the end, Unbroken’s biggest crime is the heavy handed bronzed makeup during Zamperini’s track days.
As usual, the closing caption cards bring the story out of the screen into the real world and help give the film a little tail sting after all.
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nicholas Brookland
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