Bravely in search of a per­son­al­ity

An­gelina Jolie’s epic wartime sur­vival drama has ev­ery­thing go­ing for it – ex­cept character and plot, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

UN­BRO­KEN Di­rected by An­gelina Jolie Star­ring Jack O’Con­nell, Domh­nall Glee­son, Miyavi, CJ Valleroy, Gar­rett Hed­lund, Finn Wit­trock, Jai Court­ney, Luke Tread­away. 12A cert, gen­eral re­lease, 137 min They won’t be putting it on the poster, but, as An­gelina Jolie’s sec­ond film as di­rec­tor pow­ers to­wards cin­e­mas, one un­for­tu­nate quote is el­bow­ing all pithy raves into the gut­ter. Does Un­bro­ken re­ally look like the work of a “min­i­mally tal­ented spoilt brat”? Well, it’s bet­ter than at least half of George Clooney’s di­rec­to­rial out­put and no­body’s giv­ing that sil­ver fox metaphor­i­cal wed­gies via leaked email.

Jolie has cer­tainly (be­ware, faint-praise Klaxon) lured many tal­ented peo­ple into her tent. Her large-scale, old-school adap­ta­tion of Laura Hil­len­brand’s book – de­tail­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary tale of war hero Louis “Louie” Zam­perini – draws a dis­ci­plined per­for­mance from the de­servedly un­avoid­able Jack O’Con­nell. Alexan­dre De­s­plat’s score swells gor­geously. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Roger Deakins casts a smoky light over even the most trau­matic in­ci­dents. The only things miss­ing are character and plot.

Of course, plot is not the same thing as story. By the time of his 28th birth­day, Zam­perini (who, poignantly, died ear­lier this year) had lived through suf­fi­cient ad­ven­tures to gen­er­ate an en­tire li­brary of boys’ own yarns. Raised in Los An­ge­les, he ran for the US in the 1936 Olympics and, though he failed to win a medal, did well enough to sug­gest that a dis­tin­guished ca­reer was loom­ing. When war came, he en­listed in the air force and earned a com­mis­sion as a bom­bardier. As the film ex­plains, Zam­perini sur­vived at least one close scrape with death be­fore his plane crashed into the Pa­cific with the loss of eight crew mem­bers. Our hero was one of three who sur­vived.

Later, after an ex­tra­or­di­nary 47 days adrift, he was fished out by the Ja­panese and dis­patched to a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally bru­tal pris­oner-of-war camp.

Four dis­tin­guished writ­ers – the Coen brothers among them – have wres­tled with Hil­len­brand’s book, but none has man­aged to work any in­ter­est­ing kinks into a drea­rily lin­ear nar­ra­tive. Though in­di­vid­ual episodes are fas­ci­nat­ing – the fight for sur­vival on the raft is prop­erly grip­ping – we never en­counter the in­ter­lock­ing arcs or com­ple­men­tary cir­cum­stances that turn a story into a plot. The train just trun­dles on by.

Alec Guin­ness’s in­car­cer­a­tion within the tin shack in The Bridge on the River Kwai was con­nected to a wider nar­ra­tive in­volv­ing the con­flict be­tween duty and moral­ity. A sim­i­lar act of en­durance by Zam­perini late in Un­bro­ken emerges as a dis­crete episode with no larger sig­nif­i­cance.

More se­ri­ously still, the film is almost en­tirely de­void of per­son­al­i­ties. No blame should at­tach to the ac­tors. Look­ing un­ex­pect­edly like a young Dirk Bog­a­rde, O’Con­nell – who has al­ready ex­celled in ’71 and Starred Up this year – of­fers a master­class in pained re­pres­sion and in­ner strength. How­ever fraught the cir­cum­stances, he never gives in to the showy emote. Yet there is lit­tle else to this Zam­perini, aside from de­ter­mi­na­tion, brav­ery and re­sis­tance. We get as much of his true character from his Wikipedia en­try as we do from the shal­low script.

Domh­nall Glee­son, play­ing another sur­vivor of the crash, is as charis­matic and sweetly voiced as ever, but he, too, is at­tack­ing a shadow rather than a per­son­al­ity.

Worst served of all is Miyavi as Mut­suhiro Watan­abe, the Ja­panese guard who most tor­mented Zam­perini. The ac­tor is stuck with a one-di­men­sional mon­ster who, just as Zam­perini only lives to be brave, only lives to in­flict pain and mis­use power. Cru­cially (un­like, say, Ralph Fi­ennes’s Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List), this ver­sion of Watan­abe seems to know that he is evil. That is how Bond hench­men be­have, not the an­tag­o­nists of grown-up dra­mas.

Still, for all its abun­dant flaws, Un­bro­ken serves as an at­trac­tive showcase for some of Hol­ly­wood’s most re­li­able or promis­ing pro­fes­sion­als. It’s the sort of film that used to win best-pic­ture Os­cars in the 1980s. The aware­ness that such movies man­age that feat less of­ten th­ese days makes Un­bro­ken a lit­tle bit harder to dis­like.

Un­bro­ken opens next week

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