Over the years, actors who have turned their hand to directing have had mixed fortunes.
Probably the most successful in recent years has been Clint Eastwood (he’s received Oscar nominations for his acting and actually won the Oscar for direction). Actresses who have switched to directing are thinner on the ground (let’s not mention Madonna), although Canadian Sarah Polley has received plaudits in both disciplines. Now Angelina Jolie has moved behind the camera and this, her first outing at the helm of a major movie, shows she can definitely hold her own with the ‘boys’.
Unbroken is based on the true story of Louis Zamperini (played by rising British star Jack O’Connell), a teenage tearaway who found meaning in life through running. Having competed in the 1936 Olympics, he went on to become an aircraft gunner in the Second World War and then suffered what can only be seen as a double dose of extreme misfortune.
He and the rest of his crew ditched into the Pacific Ocean – only Zamperini, his best mate Phil Philips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Hugh Cuppernell (Jai Courtney) made it into a life raft. What ensued were days and days of thirst, hunger and the constant danger of circling sharks. After 33 days Cuppernell died and after a massive 47 days Zamperini and Philips were rescued – by the Japanese.
Zamperini now swapped the torment of being castaway with the literal torture of a Japanese POW camp where the commander – known as The Bird by the inmates (and played by Takamasa Ishihara) – a particularly vindictive and sadistic individual, decided to break Zamperini’s spirit. The fact he failed to do so despite numerous vicious beatings and humiliations is testament to Zamperini’s determination to survive no matter what.
At one point early in the film, Louis’s brother tells him ‘where there’s no pain, there’s no gain’ and it seems to be a philosophy he takes to heart. It is this triumph of the will over despair and desperation that forms the backbone of the movie and is what director Jolie is keen to emphasise. Yet strangely enough, it is not the harrowing scenes within the POW camp that have the greatest impact here. Much more immediate and tense are the excellently choreographed aerial dogfights and the plane smashing into the sea and those nail-biting days and nights floating hopelessly with danger all around.
It’s an oddly old-fashioned film and although O’Connell does his best to show us Louis’s strength, courage and fortitude, he is given little material with which to reveal Louis the man; the stripped down human and what he was thinking or feeling during the most testing of situations. This makes the film more workmanlike and worthy than compelling and although you emphasise with Louis’s plight, your sympathy for him remains at one remove.
Unbroken ticks a lot of boxes but until Angelina Jolie can find that magic switch that takes the audience out of their cinema seats and deep into the hearts and minds of her characters, really showing what makes them tick, the directing accolades will elude her.
It will be interesting to see what subject she decides to tackle next.