If you can take it, you can make it.

If you can take it, you can make it.

You have to hand it to the marketing team of UNBROKEN – they certainly have an eye for iconography. This is a movie that is being sold in trailers and on billboards by way of a black and white image of its star, Jack O’Connell, hoisting aloft a heavy wooden beam. The image is striking and evokes all sorts of feelings – feelings of pathos, of determination, of strength. However, when one looks a little bit longer at the image, one comes away with questions. What exactly is happening in this moment? Why is it happening? How is the character doing it?

Good questions all, but not the responsibility of the marketing team to answer them. As it turns out, the filmmakers didn’t feel like taking on the responsibility either.

UNBROKEN is the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). The child of immigrant parents, Zamperini is picked on a lot by his school mates for the usual silly reasons that children pick on other children, fuelled just that little bit more by some anti-Italian discrimination.

In the face of this, Zamperini’s older brother suggests that he turn himself into an athlete – specifically a distance runner. Zamperini soon becomes one of the best runners in the nation, crushing the competition at the local level and even qualifying to represent America at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Inspired by what his brother taught him, he puts in a solid showing, and leaves with intentions to compete at an even higher level at the 1940 games…in Tokyo.

Of course, before those games can take place, World War II breaks out, and Zamperini enlists as a B-24 bombardier. Rolled into a flight crew that includes Cpt. Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis McNamara (Finn Wittrock), Zamperini finds himself on an aircraft that is hit by enemy fire and crashes headlong into The Pacific with no landmass in sight. While most of the crew is killed on impact, Zamperini, Phillips, and McNamara survive and pile into a life raft where they will drift for 49 days before being pulled out of the ocean by a Japanese warship.

It’s then that the soldiers are hauled out of the drink and sent to separate POW camps. Zamperini finds himself in a camp in Ōfuna run by a Sergeant named Watanabe (Miyavi). Watanabe seems fascinated by the one-time Olympian and also hellbent on breaking him. The question remains as to whether Zamperini has anything left in the tank after his ordeals, and just what might finally get him to cry “uncle”.

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Louis Zamperini’s experiences as a world-class athlete and bombardier in the Air Force make for a deeply compelling story – unfortunately, UNBROKEN has no idea how to do that story any justice.

So much of Zamperini’s story revolves around endurance; how far he can run, how long he can last, how much he can take. In a time when so many of us are ready to turtle and call it a day at the smallest inconvenience, such stamina is something to be admired. However, there’s a world of difference between celebrating endurance and illustrating tedium. The former requires that we feel everything the character is going through; the heat of the sun, the burn of overworked muscles, the sting of sweat in the eyes. Film has the power to tap into these visceral feelings in ways like few other art forms do…but UNBROKEN never takes these tools from the toolbox.

Instead, it wants to beat us into submission with pure tedium. Scene after scene of each torture…shot after shot of “how hard” Zamperini had it. Where did he draw his strength from? What was going through his head as he was punched over and over? How did he find the athleticism to put on such a splendid display of athleticism? The film either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care.

If the short-shrift of Zamperini isn’t bad enough, it is compounded with the complete waste of Miyavi as Watanabe. The casting of the Japanese rock star is a brilliant move since he has a truly unsettling face when his hair is swept back and tucked under his cap. He has eyes that seem to be boring right through you, and a cold expression that suggests he already knows how he is going to hurt you and is only waiting until the mood suits him. In a word, he looks terrifying. The problem? Watanabe becomes a toothless sadist. “Look at me” “Don’t look at me” “Carry that”. That’s about the extent of his dialogue.

The real Watanabe is one of the most notorious screws in the history of the Japanese military. He was a sadist who would viciously beat his prisoners, and then mess with their heads by offering them tiny luxuries. UNBROKEN offers no insight into what he wanted to do to Zamperini – or further, what fuelled his sadism. It either needed to make him more remote, or less of a puzzle. But the film finds this odd middle ground that seems to make him common…like the sort of prison camp officer we’ve seen in many movies before this.

When you put it all together, what you get is a film that is long on craft, but short on impact. It wants us to give ourselves over to swelling scores and stirring silhouettes the way we have so many times before. But that’s the problem; we already have so many times before. In big movies and small movies, we have felt deep sorrow and great empathy for those who gave the greatest sacrifice. There are certainly many more stories to be told in that respect, but the bar has been set high…we put it there.

It’s not enough anymore just to say “War is Hell”. We have reached a point where we want to learn more about those who make the descent, and – dare we dream – the hellions they meet while they are down there. UNBROKEN has so many elements that could make it a great film in defter hands; ultimately though, it’s just a shallow reminder of other great films in defter hands.

Matineescore: ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on UNBROKEN.