Unbroken movie review: where war movies have gone before

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Unbroken yellow light

Jack O’Connell is the most exciting young actor to break out in years, and he makes this overly familiar film worth your time… if only just.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

First of all: Jack O’Connell. This guy is the most exciting young actor to break out in years. He’s been around British TV for a while, but his recent one-two feature-film punch of Starred Up and ’71 (the latter of which will open in the U.S. in February 2015) put him in the not-to-be-ignored list. He’s a chameleon onscreen, all but unrecognizable from one role to another: you’d be hard-pressed to see either the brash, already hardened Londoner teen felon of Starred Up or the earnest, terrified young British soldier of ’71 in the all-American 1940s flyboy of Unbroken — and that’s only one aspect of the ineffable It that makes him so compulsively watchable onscreen. In the sea of supernaturally gorgeous movie faces, his is not more than pleasantly attractive, so it’s not that. I still cannot pinpoint how he makes himself so charismatic in such an unassuming way. He is simply a natural-born movie star in all the best, most compelling senses of the job. You can’t take your eyes off him, and you can’t help but get so caught up in his character that you are utterly in sympathy with him.

Second of all: Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey), action director. Unbroken opens with O’Connell’s Louis Zamperini, U.S. Air Force bombardier, in a plane on a WWII bombing run somewhere over the Pacific. I have never experienced anything like this scene in a movie before: we are there in the plane as bullets strafe right through it, our sense of up and down challenged as the plane rocks and dips as it *gulp* gets buffeted by explosions all around. Oh, and the bomb-bay door is open to the empty sky below as Zamperini is scooting around trying to jury-rig a fix for the doors (which won’t close, and need to, if they’re going to be able to land). If he falls, it seems, so will we. It’s as thrilling a moment of cinema as cinema can offer.

These are the best things about Unbroken. Since he’s the star, onscreen for pretty much every single minute of the runtime, O’Connell alone is more than enough to make the movie worth your time. But it’s a real shame that it feels like we’ve seen most of everything he gets to do onscreen before. Troubled kids rescued from a life of crime by sports, and extreme survival at sea, and World War II POW camps with sadistic commandants: all have been well explored… although, not, to be fair, in the same film, as far as I’m aware.

This is the true story of Zamperini, the child of Italian immigrants and an athlete from Torrance, California, who was, at the point when he competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the fastest high-school runner in history. (Apparently Hitler was so impressed with his performance that he wanted to meet the kid, and did. The movie skips over this. But then, Hitler has been well covered in The Movies too.) The screenplay is, unexpectedly, by such luminaries as Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, Gambit), Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures, Water for Elephants), and William Nicholson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Les Misérables ), based on the biography by Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote the book that Seabiscuit is based on. It jumps back and forth between the child Louis (C.J. Valleroy) learning how to channel his budding-delinquent energy into running and the G.I. Louis’s army action, which culminates in crashing at sea in the Pacific. After that, we stay with the grownup — but still painfully young — Louis drifting for a month and a half before being picked up by the Japanese and then enduring torturous abuse as their prisoner until the war ended.

The rest of the cast is terrific too: I haven’t been much of a fan of Domhnall Gleeson (Frank, About Time), but he finds a new gravitas as Louis’s fellow soldier, survivor, and POW. Takamasa Ishihara as the sadistic commandant is absolutely chilling. And among Louis’s fellow grunts are familiar faces including Garrett Hedlund (Inside Llewyn Davis, Tron: Legacy), Jai Courtney (Divergent, I, Frankenstein), and Luke Treadaway (The Rise, Killing Bono), all doing solid work.

But the overall impression Unbroken leaves us with is the one conveyed by its bland, generic title: However well it’s presented, there is little new to see here.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Unbroken for its representation of girls and women.

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Sat, Dec 27, 2014 4:00pm

I should just be all smug up front: I’ve been saying for years that Jack O’Connell is amazingly talented in a way very very few actors are. It’s satisfying to see everyone coming round to that.

With that out of the way…
The film is good, O’Connell is excellent, the photography is gorgeous…but it’s missing something. The editing is rather choppy, going from one event to another (or a beating to a different beating) without any linkage or quiet moments to reflect.

I would still recommend it, but it’s not the great film it should have been.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  NorthernStar
Sat, Dec 27, 2014 4:35pm

If you don’t watch TV — or at least the very particular bits of British TV that he’s been in — he has been totally under the radar until last year. It’s always fun to know that you’re ahead of the curve, isn’t it? :-)

Sat, Dec 27, 2014 4:04pm

I am DYING for an Exodus review. I just wanna see you rip that shit apart.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bea
Sat, Dec 27, 2014 4:34pm

It’s on the list and coming asap.

Sat, Dec 27, 2014 5:57pm

Particularly now that we’ve recently had Fury, The Railway Man, The Monuments Men – WWII is in people’s minds and they’ve been reminded that all those classic war films of the 50s and 60s still exist, so they have plenty of opportunity to see the first time this stuff was done instead of the rehash.

Even if this one does have the scene in the plane.