Angelina Jolie’s second film as director, Unbroken, is based on the amazing true-life story of former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini who spent two-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war during World War II. The film has enough plot to fill three full-length features, and Jolie deliberately fashions it as a sweeping epic. But while she succeeds in astounding us with her protagonist’s extraordinary resilience and courage under fire, the film is seldom moving in the manner that an inspiring biopic ought to be.
Cutting back and forth between the past and the present, Unbroken traces Zamperini’s story from his youthful days as a trouble-making kid to his redemption when he discovers he has a natural talent for running. At 19, he made the American track team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, setting a new record in his final lap. Soon after, he was shipped off to war where he served in the Army Air Corps before his plane crashed into the Pacific, leaving him, with two surviving comrades, adrift in the ocean on a life raft for 47 days. After enduring storms, sharks, and starvation he was finally rescued, only to be thrown into a Japanese POW camp where he was tortured by a sadistic warden until the end of the war.
If this is reading like a bullet-point Wikipedia entry, it’s because the film often feels like one. With so much story going on, there’s little room for nuance and character development, and what’s ultimately ironic is that a drama intended to leave us awestruck by the power of the human spirit, somehow fails to get under Zamperini’s skin. That’s a shame because charming Irish actor Jack O’Connell, who plays the lead, is clearly talented but alas he isn’t asked to do much more than suffer nobly…which he does, a lot.
The sadistic brutality meted out to the protagonist by his Japanese oppressor gets repetitive after a point. It’s clear that Jolie wants you to feel the extent of the pain he endured. But what you can’t help feeling is manipulated, as you’re made to view beating after beating in unflinching close up, accompanied by a swelling background score for good measure. Jolie’s one big crucial mistake is that she evidently worships her subject, treating him like something of a larger-than-life superhero rather than a flesh-and-blood human that we might relate to.
That doesn’t however mean she’s a bad filmmaker; it’s just a choice she’s made with regards to the tone she wants to give the film. In fact, Jolie directs with a keen eye. She knows how to shoot an action scene, which becomes clear in the film’s terrific opening sequence, a thrilling dogfight in the skies where Zamperini and his crew take fire from Japanese fighter jets. The film’s most compelling portion is the one in which the protagonist and his friends are trapped in the ocean. It’s gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins, and Jolie infuses a terrifying sense of isolation and desperation into these scenes.
Unbroken is a perfectly respectable film, competently directed and performed. What’s missing is real emotion; I never felt genuinely moved. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.