Old-fashioned to a fault, Unbroken is a maddening film about a fascinating subject. The Olympian and World War 2 veteran Louis Zamperini, who died at age 97 this year, is clearly an inspirational figure, just not for the reasons that director Angelina Jolie thinks. His life is a testament to human endurance and mankind’s capacity for forgiveness, yet Jolie’s film cheapens Zamperini to a series of physical hardships and triumphs. This is a biopic equivalent of a geek show, sleekly presented and without much nuance, designed to provoke a visceral response and not much thought.
Jolie opens with a compelling first shot: there is a bird’s-eye view of the ocean and sky, and several bomber planes interrupt the image’s simplicity. Louis (Jack O’Connell) is part of a bombing crew, going on a dangerous mission that somehow still lands even after their plane is hit. The script, with four co-authors that include Joel and Ethan Coen, then flashes back to Louis as a child. He was an angry hell-raiser, the sort of little shit who would get drunk and steal before he could shave. The key relationship is between Louis and his brother (Alex Russell), who believed in him when no one else would.
After his debut as an Olympic runner, Jolie spends on the plurality of the time on war. Louis had an atypical experience: after his plane was shot down, he spent weeks at sea before he was picked up by the Japanese. At a POW camp, one sadistic Japanese officer (Takamasa Ishihara) would torment Louis with nonstop physical abuse.
Jolie and her production team film this material so it looks like a melodrama from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Everyone is improbably handsome, even in prison, and their embrace of goodness is practically inhuman; in fact, the dialogue is bland in an “aw shucks” kind of way (characters shout chummy propaganda without any irony). This not an attempt at realism, but at myth-making: Jolie weaves messianic themes with the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation, a conceit that hits home when, in an act of defiance, Louis holds up a heavy plank like it’s his literal/metaphorical cross to bear.
There is a lot of violence in Unbroken, particularly once Louis is at the camp, yet it Jolie avoids gore because, well, it wouldn’t be nice or inspiring that way. This is a daring choice, particularly given the skepticism of modern audiences, and it arrives with little impact because her old-fashioned style also follows a plot formula. The only interesting thing Unbroken is Jolie’s end use of flashback: she keeps interrupting the plane crash until it has no suspense anymore. A movie like this is doing poorly when it’s most noteworthy flourish is also its biggest blunder.
The performances follow the confines of biopics: there is no depth to the characters because that would require Jolie and her actors to grapple with prison abuse, instead of using it as a means to inspire. O’Connell is handsome in an unremarkable way, and his performance it at its best when it’s wordless. Still, the lengthy section at sea is harrowing, full of shark attacks and an encroaching sense of death, and O’Connell shifts subtly from exhaustion to hopelessness (Domhnall Gleeson has a terrific supporting performance as Louis’ friend who also survives the crash).
The other strong performance is from Ishihara, who plays the tormenter with pervasive self-loathing. His compact face is a stark contrast to O’Connell’s chiseled cgub, yet there is depth there, too. The repeated line in Unbroken is, “If I can take it, I can make it.” Ishihara is such a monster that the philosophy rises above a platitude: eventually, Louis uses the idea to give the Japanese soldiers a massive middle finger (so to speak). The trouble is that Jolie would rather see Louis’ defiance as a triumph of the American spirit, instead of a profound act of physical spite, which is what Louis seemed to be thinking.
I have not read the book Unbroken, which was written by the same woman as Seabiscuit, but apparently the film is only one small section of it. Author Laura Hillenbrand goes well beyond Louis’ wartime life: after alcoholism and severe PTSD, Louis became a born-again Christian (through the help of Billy Graham), and later went back to Japan to forgive the men who imprisoned him. Now that would be an interesting biopic, full of rich psychological material and qualities that are worth celebrating. In Jolie’s hands, however, Louis’ post-war life is nothing but a faux-inspirational title card.Unbroken is life of one somewhat remarkable POW, and yet the film plainly shows that dozens – if not hundreds – of Allied soldiers survived similar trials. By glossing over what made Louis Zamperini unique, even heroic, she does a disservice to his legacy.