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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Unbroken

Whatever you were expecting from Angelina Jolie's directorial effort, it probably wasn't that it be disappointingly safe.
By Tom Clift
January 19, 2015
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By Tom Clift
January 19, 2015
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There’s nothing the Oscars love more than an inspiring true story. Every year in the lead-up to Hollywood’s most self-congratulatory night, our theatres with filled with biographical dramas: handsome, well-acted and totally inoffensive. This year’s crop includes The Imitation Game, American Sniper and The Theory of Everything, all of which attempt to rouse us with their stories of courage in the face of adversity. And yes, sure, their protagonists are all white guys. But hey, at least Alan Turing was gay.

Also on the list of this year’s would-be contenders is Unbroken, the sophomore directorial effort from one Angelina Jolie. The film is a wartime biopic (of course) about Olympic marathon runner and WWII bombardier Louie Zamperini, whose B-24 aircraft crashed down in the North Pacific and who spent the last two years of the conflict as a prisoner of war in Japan.

The film is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. With a title like that, it’s hardly surprising that the story leans towards hero worship. As depicted by Jolie and actor Jack O’Connell, Zamperini is less a man as he is a pillar of bravery and virtue; a genetically engineered combination of Jesse Owens and Captain America. Flashbacks to before the war come complete with stock-standard motivational quotes. “A moment of pain,” we’re told, “is worth a lifetime of glory.”

I’m not trying to diminish Zamperini’s sacrifice. But while he may have been a hero, he’s not an interesting protagonist. Tales of wartime valour have been done to death, and frankly Unbroken brings nothing new to the table. Jolie portrays America’s enemies with about as much dimension as the Nazis in Hogan’s Heroes, although admittedly they’re not nearly as funny. The only Japanese character they bother naming is the sadistic Corporal Watanabe (played by musician Miyavi), whose cartoonish villainy prevents any exploration of the psychology behind wartime abuse.

And yes, atrocities were committed in POW camps, and it’s important that we continue to remember that. At the same time, this story has already been covered. Instead, why not make a movie about the 100,000 Japanese Americans forced into prison camps by President Roosevelt? Where’s the film about the moral quandary behind dropping the atomic bomb? Hell, what about telling the story of Zamperini’s life after the war, when post-traumatic stress disorder drove him to alcoholism until he became a born-again motivation speaker? Those would be interesting stories. But I guess they’re not to Oscar’s tastes.

Unbroken is by no means a terrible film. Jolie is a solid director, her cast does good work and the narrative – shallow and conventional as it is – isn’t necessarily unengaging. It is, however, disappointingly safe; the sort of adequate time killer you won’t necessarily regret seeing, assuming you remember seeing it at all.

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