In recent months, cinema screens have been dominated with biographical films. Alan Turing was the main focus behind “The Imitation Game”, Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and J.M.W. Turner was the star in “Mr Turner”. Another addition to that list is the story of Louie Zamperini, as conveyed in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”.
Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s biography “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”, the adaptation begins with United State Army Air Forces bombardier Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his squad on a mission to bomb the Japanese-held island of Nauru.
However, the plane’s brakes are broken as a result of an attack from the Japanese. Pilot Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) manages to bring it to a stop at the end of the runway in the first of the film’s highly dramatic and intense moments.
Unbroken then flashes back to Louie Zamperini’s childhood, where his brother Peter (John D’Leo) trains him to become a runner. After a series of training and numerous races, Louie eventually qualifies for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany, where he achieves a world record for the fastest speed set during the final lap of the 5,000 metres race, running it in 56 seconds.
Zamperini’s rise to fame alone, beautifully shot through a honey-coloured filter, could form the basis of a film, as he goes from a troubled child to an Olympic athlete, yet this is only the start of Louie Zamperini’s extraordinary life story.
Back in the present day, Louie and the surviving crew of the previous mission are sent on a search and rescue mission with a plane that had previously been used for spare parts. During the operation, both of the plane’s left engines fail, causing them to crash into the Pacific Ocean. Such moments look and feel spectacular, largely down to Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption”, “Skyfall”) and his excellent cinematography.
Despite largely relying on special effects, there’s an authentic feel to the aeronautic scenes that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. Not to mention the rich colour palette throughout, as Deakins plays with light and dark shades to reflect the feelings and emotional states of the characters.
Louie, Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil, the only survivors of the crash, are forced to survive on two floating safety rafts and limited supplies in a series of “Life of Pi”-esque scenes. Mac passes away after 33 harrowing days and, two weeks later, Louie and Phil find themselves being captured by the Japanese, who force them to become prisoners of war in separate camps. Louie is sent to Tokyo, where he is singled out by Corporal Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).
While director Angelina Jolie does a solid job of replicating Zamperini’s physical ordeal, the film lacks a sense of emotional state and suffering, something that would have brought the epic survival tale to life. Furthermore, the omission of a number of key moments from the book, including Louie’s meeting with Adolf Hitler and Zamperini’s experience with post-traumatic stress, is extremely questionable.
Needless to say, Jack O’Connell shines in his portrayal of Louie Zamperini, as he demonstrates a great abundance of energy and determination throughout. Whereas his role as a prisoner feels like a reprise of his characters in “Starred Up” and “71”, he still delivers a highly commendable performance. Likewise, Takamasa Ishihara also stands out as Watanabe, making his authority felt with precise timing and an unsympathetic attitude.