The most exciting moments of Unbroken come at its outset. We get to see a United States bomber plane performing such a mission. There’s gunfire, planes are shot down, bombs are indeed set off, and then there’s a semi-crash landing back at base. It has fun comradery between the characters, lots of action, a few jokes, and thrilling filmmaking. Then we get to see our protagonist, Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), go through childhood and eventually compete in the 1936 Olympic Games. It’s still fun. But it’s all downhill from there.
See, Unbroken tells the story of Louie, a few years later, after the plane he was in crashed in the middle of the ocean. He survived with one other man on a lifeboat for 47 days — there were two others, but one didn’t make it — at which point they are rescued … by the Japanese. In case your history isn’t up to snuff, the Japanese were not friends to Americans at that point, so Louie winds up in a P.O.W. camp run by “The Bird” (Miyavi). And then in a worse P.O.W. camp. It’s really not a lot of fun to be Louie for most of the film.
What most of Unbroken shows is constant abuse, torture, and struggle on the part of our protagonist. That’s really it. It’s softcore torture porn. It’s not bloody or profane, but all we get to do is watch someone suffer for the majority of the film, during which time he has ample opportunity to give up, but he doesn’t, because he’s too strong for that, and the film needs to be inspirational and show the strength of the human spirit. Well, it does one of those.
Unbroken isn’t inspirational. It tells an inspirational story but not in a way that it’ll inspire anything but nodding off. It’s told conventionally, flatly, and in far too prolonged a matter to truly inspire. Yes, Louie is strong. Good for him. I wanted his suffering to be over not so that he wouldn’t have to suffer any more, but so I could stop watching Unbroken. A disrespectful critic would compare Louie’s struggle to his own, so I won’t do that, but … well, I think you can see what I’m (not) saying.
I say it would be a disrespectful critic who would say that because Unbroken is based on a true story. Louie was a real person, the events in the film really did happen, so comparing watching the film to the real thing just isn’t cool. Unfortunately, it’s hard to care a whole lot about Louie’s story. Louie is utterly without character, for one. He is this man simply because he is this man. He has no depth or development; he’s just a guy who won’t break, because that’s who he is.
In addition, the story is told slowly and repetitively, essentially serving as a gauntlet of torture that just doesn’t end, until of course the war ends. Without a good main character, we’re basically just watching some guy get tortured a whole bunch. The story is inherently inspirational simply because it is true and because watching someone endure that is enough to bring a tear to your eye, and yet the film isn’t competent enough to capitalize on this. We go from torture to sitting around looking hurt, to more torture, and there’s nothing there to drive us through this and make it worthwhile.
Jack O’Connell turns in a physical performance but not the heartbreaking or charismatic one that was required. Yes, he suffers through some abuse — or at least appears to — but doesn’t do anything beyond that. He’s an emotionless man who stares straight ahead at every moment, even in the “quiet” and “intimate” ones. About the only performance that is actually good is Miyavi’s as a mean but complicated runner of a P.O.W. camp. He’s compelling for the entire time he’s on-screen, and I’d like to see him in more movies.
Unbroken is a movie that should inspire and instead feels like a waste of time. Based on an incredible true story of perseverance, it doesn’t give us much insight into its lead character and plays out like a light torture porn film. What should be powerful and inspirational is boring. It starts off strong and engaging, but eventually wears us out and made me want to stop watching it. I’m not as strong as Louie Zamperini. Unbroken proved that much.