Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s long-awaited adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, the extraordinary story of World War II vet and former Olympian Louis Zamperini’s experiences surviving Japanese POW camps, is a crushing movie disappointment.
What should have been a moving, richly historic account of an underdog who rose from Depression-era poverty to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics before undergoing the spoils, and then some, of war, becomes an utterly generic movie that fails at all levels to engender sympathy for its heroic lead character. And I know he was heroic because I’ve read the book, twice. Yet rarely has a movie about enduring spirit felt so lifeless, well intentioned as it may be.
Unwisely thrusting us immediately into the South Pacific fog of war circa 1943, Unbroken opens with young bombardier Louis “Louie” Zamperini (a very good Jack O’ Connell) and his fellow airmen under fire from Japanese bombers. The scrappy band of G.I. brothers includes Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhall Gleeson), Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock) and Hugh “Cup” Cupperness (Jai Courtney), all of who are presented as off-the-shelf stock (though in life were anything but).
Louie, we learn in flashback, grew up in a poverty-stricken family in Torrance, California, finding his way out after becoming a star sprinter on the high school track team, a talent he honed well during a childhood of thievery and mischief. It was also a talent that took him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he excelled in the 5,000 meter dash. His glory days were short-lived, however, the Nazis on the rise world at the dawn of war.
Patriotic Louie finds his second calling in the military service, and with the support of his older brother (Alex Russell)—“If you can take it, you can make it”—quickly enlists and finds himself shuttled off to combat.
After a routine rescue flight in their damaged plane leads to a crash landing in the sea, survivors Louie, Phil and Mac find themselves without food or shelter for a harrowing forty-seven day marathon of blistering sun, starvation and dehydration, under nonstop by Great Whites and flyover Japanese fire. Their hand-to-mouth survival includes catching fish by hand and, when possible, setting elaborate traps for a passing seagull.
Yet rescue is not in sight for the men as the enemy Japanese pull them from the sea, their situation devolving from near-death to something worse, the vicious and brutal regimens of sadistic POW camp commander Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird” and played effectively by Japanese pop singer Miyavi.
When The Bird learns he has a former Olympian within his grasp, he quickly develops a master and prisoner dynamic with Louie reminiscent of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It’s a terrifying relationship that carries on for years and across camps, including a coal mine enslavement beautifully rendered by Deakins as a hell of ashen grays and smeared, desaturated, drawn faces.
The brutality of this relationship can’t be understated, and Jolie lays on—heavily—the Christ metaphors, particular in an extended sequence where suffering Louie is required to suspend an iron bar across his shoulders for hours.
The film’s best performance comes from Garrett Hedlund as fellow American prisoner John Fitzgerald, his gravely voice and strong, silent demeanor tested in a painful sequence where he’s forced to strike best friend Louie—as are all of the other men in the camp—in order to save his friend’s life.
Jolie has assembled a top-flight pedigree of talent here—including screenwriters Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson and Joel and Ethan Cohen, as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Alexandre Desplat—but despite their considerable efforts, the movie remains grounded. You keep waiting for it to get moving, to make you feel something—anything—but what was in life a near unbelievable example of faith and fortitude onscreen becomes standard issue.
As a director, Jolie’s 2011 Bosnian wartime romance In the Land of Blood and Honey, which she both wrote and directed, is leagues above Unbroken’s big-budget misery in both the complexity of the politics and the emotions tangled up between a Serb soldier and his Bosnian girlfriend, who enter into a much more complex master and slave relationship than on display here. It would appear that budget and reverence for her subject and friend (Zamperini passed away during post production) has diluted the material and approach.
Most frustratingly given the intensity of the behaviors onscreen, Unbroken is curiously remote, never able to muster much empathy for Louie or any of the other characters, largely because the screenplay never creates real people for us to care about, largely content to be a series of pretty pictures of terrible things, all dramatic incident and suffering but very little texture or nuance.
Unbroken’s failure is absolutely at the screenplay level—one cannot fault the performances, cinematography or score—but they are all in service of a very misguided structure, which plunges us right into battle from the opening scene and relies on bizarrely placed flashbacks to intermittently reveal key moments from Louie’s childhood and subsequent teen years, the dialogue of which is so on-the-nose that it sounds like platitudes and tells us nothing we haven’t heard before.
Also, as in any adaptation, key life events have been excised—a meeting with Hitler, the brazen theft of the Nazi flag, the emotional trials of family at home, a late life turn toward Christianity and postwar attempts to meet and forgive The Bird—and this lack of detail makes Unbroken something less than epic, and a movie that feels like a streamlined, Forrest Gump-esque, glossy picture missing connective tissue.
Questionable screenplay structure, obvious dialogue, two-dimensional characters and an inability to make Louie a real person rather than a symbolic representation of reactive suffering (there’s nothing here that makes him any different from any of the other soldiers), make Unbroken a hollow movie version of a fascinating life story.
The addition of a postscript, photos of the actual Zamperini and a maudlin original Coldplay track over the closing credits only heighten the film’s obviousness.
A missed opportunity designed to push buttons without doing the heavy lifting.