Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie directs and produces Unbroken, an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII – only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s (Seabiscuit: An American Legend) enormously popular book, Unbroken brings to the big screen Zamperini’s unbelievable and inspiring true story about the resilient power of the human spirit.
What can make a tragic story like Louis Zamperini’s great is seeing the ways in which people cope with unrelenting, damaging circumstances. Survival instincts work differently for different people; some rely on anger, others on making the best out of a bad situation. Still others rely on faith. There has to be something present, though, and even if it can be summarized briefly, it should acknowledge the complexity of the situation.
What makes Unbroken fail to work is a lack of complexity. “If you can take it, you can make it,” characters say at various points in the film. It’s a cliché masquerading as something profound. There’s little else on display as to why Zamperini survives both his time on a raft in the Pacific Ocean and his time as a P.O.W. – maybe a desire to return home to his family, vaguely, but that’s about it. The end-of-film on-screen narration goes into some detail about the lives of figures in the film post-World War II, and it touches briefly on Zamperini’s faith. Between the way he’s portrayed in the film and the way the text is worded, though, it appears his faith was more a component to his recovery than his survival.
It’s disappointing because of the players involved here. From a technical perspective, Angelina Jolie does an admirable job with her second directorial outing. Hiring Roger Deakins, one of the (if not the) best cinematographers working today, gives the film some gorgeous shots in the film’s first half, which alternates between flashbacks to Zamperini’s youth and his time through the raft survival. But the script is bland and lacking in any real characterization. It’s surprising, since Ethan and Joel Coen are credited with the script, though it’s possible the final product has little to do with their work.
The cast assembled is also commendable. Jack O’Connell’s a strong up-and-coming actor, and while he was certainly better in this year’s Starred Up, he’s able to make Zamperini a watchable figure in spite of the script’s deficiencies. He’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast as his fellow soldiers, including Domnhall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock and Jai Courtney. More debatable is the turn from Miyavi as Watanabe, the officer responsible for the most brutal torture during Unbroken‘s lengthy second half. Watanabe is clearly psychotic, and Miyavi is able to portray that, but it’s a two-note character.
Zamperini spent decades working to get this film made, and saw it fall through the cracks a number of times before Jolie took over. Unfortunately, he died earlier this year, unable to see the final product. It’s sad, because I wonder what he would have to say about the final product. It’s far more grim than how it sounds like Zamperini was later in life.