Louie Zamperini, the World War II veteran whose incredible life inspired the movie Unbroken, cannot be faulted for living an inspirational life. But Angelina Jolie can be for never getting beneath the skin of the rich subject matter in her sophomore directing effort.
Unbroken is a film of great scope and magnitude but consistently forgets to focus in on what it is truly about. Zamperini, who died last July at the age of 97, was an Olympic sprinter who was enlisted into the Air Force when his plane crashed. One of three to survive, the Olympian spent 47 days on a life raft before being captured by Japanese soldiers and held as a prisoner of war where he was brutally tortured and mentally abused. After three years of being declared dead, Zamperini was able to return to his family triumphantly. (This is no spoiler -- it is made clear from the outset of the film that the protagonist will receive a happy ending -- perhaps the film’s largest fault.)
What an extraordinary tale! One ripe for picking; a gift to the story-telling experts of Hollywood. Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of the inexperienced Jolie, who proves to be incapable of finding the heartbeat in the chest of this history. We see the suffering and anguish endured by Zamperini, but never see beneath the flesh and bones of the contrived character. Instead, he is covered in lazy stereotypes and clichés that are simply painful to watch. From the humble beginnings as a bullied kid who is told he will never amount to anything, to the labored scene of the exhausted Zamperini lifting a block of wood above his head, against all odds, as his captors taunt him. If you pay very close attention and look carefully beneath the surface of that scene, you might even find a metaphor. Wow!
To its credit, Unbroken does feature a great performance by the relatively unknown British actor Jack O’Connell. The only humanity in this film comes from O’Connell swimming against the current of a bland screenplay. Japanese singer Miyavi is also good as the one-dimensional sadistic war camp leader “The Bird,” and is able to add a little life to his flatly-written character. Unfortunately, the acting was not enough to prevent me from groaning and checking my watch.
Admittedly, this grandiose war drama does have some really beautifully-filmed scenes. The best parts of the film are probably the ones at sea, where three men are in a raft, defying the forces of nature, and foraging for food in order to fend off starvation. As much as Jolie might have tried to make a stale and zestless film, it is impossible to escape the humanity in men on the brink of death, trying to survive.
This Oscar bait does not deserve any big awards, which is a shame because this story could really be a great film in the right hands. It would have been fascinating to see it told through the eyes of Life of Pi director Ang Lee or even Steven Spielberg, a master of finding the humanity in broad stories like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Sorry, Angelina, but this was too ambitious a project for such a beginner director.