“Unbroken” is a triumph-of-the-spirit film that devotes too much time to attempts at squashing that spirit.
Director Angelina Jolie and the screenwriters who adapted Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-selling nonfiction book had ample material from which to make a movie. The book’s subject, Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell in the film), died in July at age 97 after a truly extraordinary life.
A champion runner from Southern California nicknamed “the Torrance Tornado,” O’Connell competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics – the Hitler Olympics. Zamperini later served as a World War II bombardier. He survived a plane crash, 47 days on a lifeboat and an extended period in Japanese prison camps during which he was beaten repeatedly.
In 1946, Zamperini married – and he stayed married, until his wife died in 2001. Also immediately postwar, Zamperini, who experienced what is now known as PTSD, self-medicated with alcohol. In 1949, he attended a Billy Graham crusade and decided to devote his life to God. He stopped drinking and forgave his captors.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Out of all that, Jolie took “beaten repeatedly” and ran with it. Scene after scene of “Unbroken” climaxes with a sadistic Japanese prison guard, called the Bird (played by Japanese rock star Miyavi) singling out Louie for abuse. He hits him himself, and at one point forces all of Louie’s fellow prisoners to take turns punching Louie in the face.
One might argue that war is horrific, and Jolie is illustrating this. But it’s a matter of emphasis. Beating scenes happen in “Unbroken” long after their point has been made, and at the expense of scenes that would have lent the film an arc similar to Zamperini’s real-life one.
The Olympics are glossed over, and Zamperini’s marriage and faith reduced to a few sentences in the film’s postscript. This after Jolie has put us through so many moments during which you wonder if poor Louie ever even had a date with a girl, and how he will survive, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually, the abuse he has endured.
Jolie’s previous feature film as a director, 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” involved a sexual relationship between a Serbian prison-camp commander and a female prisoner. So she’s clearly interested in dynamics within wartime captivity.
But beyond the Bird posing a constant threat to Louie, the prisoner-guard dynamic here does not fascinate. A Bird-Louie sequence, meant to be charged with emotion, falls flat.
That’s directing, not acting. British actor O’Connell holds up his end throughout “Unbroken.” He’s steely and resolute whether Louie is running on a track, in early scenes, or withstanding his wartime hell.
Miyavi also shines, bringing much-needed star power to a film populated by unknowns and little-knowns. The screen practically crackles when he first shows up, and he always imparts the insecurity fueling his character’s cruelty.
Jolie ably stages a nail-biter of an airborne battle early in the film, and the film’s pre-prison scenes carry a burnished beauty, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Deakins often works with the Coen brothers, who polished the “Unbroken” screenplay, also credited to two other writers. The Coens, whose own films offset dark scenes with humor, left no creative fingerprints during that polish. Not even a smudge.
Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the film’s rating.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi
Director: Angelina Jolie
Rated PG-13 (war violence, including intense sequences of brutality, brief language)