I cannot, in all honestly, fully denounce any motion picture that is photographed by Roger Deakins, but Unbroken sure puts in its best college try. Even Deakins, evoking mystery and dread in a number of shots, is going through the motions here, and the film’s most endearingly chiaroscuro frames function as little more than pictorial convulsions of superficial beauty, adding absolutely nothing to the texture and tone of a film that doesn’t have much use for Deakins’ insurmountable knack for rendering even the most mundane landscape with all the rugged fantasy and mythical imagination of a storybook.
Yet Unbroken is invested in none of these theoretical opportunities, never once even whispering toward cinema’s capacity for external representation of internal feeling beyond the most obvious sense of cloying “suffering” and “punishment”. It is, instead, a garden-variety “survival of the human spirit” style tale of Olympic athlete turned prisoner-of-war Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’ Connell, who may just have a solid career ahead of him, even if this film isn’t interested in doing anything with him except laying on the suffering). The film was directed by Angelina Jolie (who occasionally emerges an inner shell of effective nuts-and-bolts craft, when she isn’t being saddled with the gluttony of self-important Oscarbait filmmaking), But the question marks are the Coen Brothers, who have never in their life written a screenplay of such mildewy, sudsy, cloying arbitrariness. The screenplay is credited to two other writers as well, and it is entirely possible their contribution was significantly rewritten, but not one iota of their playful-devil attitude toward life and cinema emerges in the film. It is trivial writing when it isn’t actively bad.
Unbroken, possibly because of the subject matter, bears resemblance to Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, a respectable work of sure-handed craft from an evil mastermind of cinema who owes it to himself to stray as far away from “respectable work of sure-handed craft” as possible (it blunts his demonic, egotistical, wonderfully idiosyncratic edge and desire to explore the nether realms of cinema). Like that film, Unbroken is never more than an also-ran with distressingly little feline cunning or convulsing rabid-dog directorial bravura. These are works scrubbed-down and spit-shined, designed for passive, statue-esque pleasure and nothing more.
Even worse, Unbroken doesn’t even have the courage to admit to itself that it is nothing more than a haughty melodrama. A full-throated, down-the-rabbit-hole propaganda piece from the 1940s would be no more nuanced, but it would be far more endearing, far more honest about how anti-realist all this shenanigans really is, and far more expressively willing to go for broke, slathering on the sensational drama with all the suds. Unbroken is sensational material with all the sensation stripped away, a work masquerading as something thoughtful and stoic when it ought to just cry a river.
Elsewhere, Unbroken vacillates between half-decent thriller craft (a sequence on a boat is fairly sharp, although it is outclassed in every possible way by JC Chandor’s All is Lost from one year before) and lame torture-porn blanketed by a PG-13 rating designed to layer a diaphanous “respect” over the violence by not actually hitting us in the gut with any of it. All of which might be acceptable as a pure thriller if not for the ineptitude of the film’s flashback structure, carried off with an extra helping of the craven, card-carrying “show all the events in the character’s life because we have to” biopic storytelling that has doomed this egregious sub-genre to resembling a waxworks show for almost a century now.
Thus, Zamperini is a wasted character with no characterization, which is fine if he was to serve as a proxy for the audience (and the film was simply to be an elemental, experiential thriller a la Herzog at his best, and not Herzog at his worst). But the film is dead-set on defining who Zamperini is in excruciatingly arbitrary detail, showing us his life without earning any of its ambitions. It doesn’t want us to feel Zamperini (and it lacks the expressionist filmmaking to achieve this effect anyway); it wants us to know Zamperini as a separate human from us, and it is wholly unconvincing on this front. The film would have been better, or at least more excusable, if Zamperini had simply been a nobody, an everyman, a shell on the screen for the audience to occupy. But, as is always the case, historical importance weighs on the film, and the filmmakers suffocate any other interests under the need to remind us how important this particular human being happens to be.
Unbroken is neither an especially bad nor an especially compelling motion picture, for all of its facets have been sanded-down and packaged-up for middlebrow consumption and nothing else. Portions of the film are clearly aware that The Bridge on the River Kwai exists, but they only serve to remind us how this film boasts none of the monumental craft, character psychology, or commentary on military class divisions of that venerable motion picture by David Lean. It is not terrible filmmaking, but it is a terrible waste.