There is quite a bit to recommend about Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s second effort as a director following 2011’s grim, ragged and intermittently powerful In the Land of Blood and Honey. It is an exquisitely mounted production with stunning cinematography from the great Roger Deakins, and Jolie shows a true flair for directing on a large scale. An early sequence in which an American bomber must fight its way past a Japanese squadron during World War II is one of the most visceral, intense aerial battles I’ve ever seen on film, and probably the closest anyone who sees the movie will ever come to knowing what it feels like to be in dogfight like that. And British star Jack O’Connell, playing real-life American Olympic star and bombardier Louie Zamperini, is pretty damn sensational in his first major leading role.
But that’s where my praise will mostly end, because Unbroken suffers from several fatal flaws in its writing (which, surprisingly, was handled by the usually deft Joel and Ethan Coen), narrative structure and overall portrayal of Zamperini, who died in real life earlier this year at the age of 97. While the movie is based on a book of the same name that chronicled the New York native’s long life (which I have not read), it gives us a very narrow view of that life, peppering us with a few flashbacks to his youth and brief ascent to the Olympics before focusing first on his 47-day ordeal aboard a life raft with two other airmen after their bomber crashed, then his brutal two-plus years as POW after the raft was picked up by a Japanese ship.
I’m not sure how the Olympics and Zamperini’s later ordeal are supposed to connect, except that the former provides him with the mantra (courtesy of his brother) “If I can take it, I can make it.” And he needs to repeat that as often as he can because the rest of Unbroken makes Mel Gibson’s torture-porn epic The Passion of the Christ look like a school Christmas pageant. Jolie and her screenwriters seem obsessed with how much suffering they can deliver to the audience, yet all that torment is meaningless and tedious because there’s zero context to it. Although O’Connell is quite good, the unchanging Zamperini is viewed throughout as something of a saint. This makes his primary conflict, with the almost cartoonishly evil prison commandant Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Japanese pop star Miyavi), seem more like something out of a superhero film because Zamperini’s essential decency never seems to be in any real danger.
Except that it was. Zamperini was apparently greatly affected by his tribulations, going through PTSD and hitting the bottle heavily as a result of his World War II experiences, until a conversion to Christianity brought him peace and turned his mind from vengeance to forgiveness – to the point that he visited Japan and met with his former prison guards to let him know he forgave them (he even tried to see Watanabe, who refused to meet him). Whatever your feelings on God and whether such a being even exists, this part of Zamperini’s life – a journey from spiritual darkness to redemption and light – sounds compelling as can be. But we only get to read about it in the end title cards of Unbroken before the credits roll.
And so in a trend that has dogged several prestigious biopics this holiday season – including The Imitation Game and American Sniper – what is potentially the most fascinating part of the subject’s life is all but ignored except for a slim sliver of that life that accentuates just one small, often horrifying aspect of it. In this regard, American Sniper and Unbroken are similar in that they present their lead character as a sort of stoic, fixed-in-bronze icon, with the flaws and internal conflicts that would make him an interesting character and not just an archetype almost completely ignored (American Sniper does try to delve into the effects of his war experiences on its subject, Chris Kyle, late in the film but it’s mishandled). Jolie, while proving herself to be a formidable director on many levels, fails to grasp this basic tenet of drama in her movie.
Unbroken, despite dragging us through every atrocious moment of Zamperini’s time at sea and in the hands of the Japanese, never makes the case for why we should view this man in the way the film wants us to. Isn’t it possible that other U.S. soldiers experience similar punishment at the hands of the enemy? What sort of insight do we gain from Zamperini’s ordeal? The only hint is in those end title cards and the untold story they sum up. The most moving scene in the film is a video clip at the end of the real man running with the Olympic torch, at nearly 81, during the Winter Olympics in Japan. Yes, Louis Zamperini may have ultimately emerged “unbroken,” but the movie itself, as majestic as it strives to be, has too many missing pieces.
Unbroken opens in theaters Christmas Day (December 25).