Even the most fascinating lives can fail to make their proper impact when dramatized on screen, and that’s certainly the case with Angelina Jolie’s slow-moving, episodic and frankly over-refined biographical film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Louis Zamperini, a troubled Italian-American boy who became an Olympic track star before serving as a US Air Force bombardier in the Pacific during World War II. He spent a month and a half lost at sea after his plane malfunctioned and crashed, and was then captured by the Japanese and taken to a series of prison camps, where he was brutally mistreated until war’s end. This is obviously a powerful story, but despite (or perhaps because of) the involvement of no fewer than four screenwriters (including Joel and Ethan Coen) and Jolie’s dedicated but unimaginative direction, it’s not molded and shaped in a way that does it justice.
As it unfolds, in a TV miniseries fashion that’s the very definition of dutiful, Zamperini is introduced, in the person of young C.J. Valleroy, as a California kid whose parents are embarrassed by his minor run-ins with the law. Fortunately his older brother recognizes that Louie is fleet of foot, and, mouthing platitudes about pain being worth a lifetime of glory, encourages him to put his skill to good use on the field. Louie is soon a high-school running sensation and a competitor in the 1936 Olympics.
But of course that Berlin event foreshadows the outbreak of war, which leads quickly to Zamperini’s time in the service and his being stranded in the Pacific along with his pilot Captain “Phil” Phillips (Domhall Gleeson) and gunner “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock). After forty-seven day he and Phillips are found by a Japanese ship. Thus begins the longest section of the film, Louie’s harrowing years at POW camps in Japan, where he becomes the principal target of sadistic sergeant Watanabe, known as “The Bird” (Miyavi), especially after he refuses to serve as a pliable mouthpiece for anti-American propaganda. Even after Watanabe is promoted and gone, the cruelty continues until the end of the war, and it’s with Zamperini’s return home that the picture ends—though he actually lived until 2014, and his post-war experiences included a bout with alcoholism and a turn to God, which the film rather lamely refers to in a closing caption suggesting that his faith saw him through his ordeal.
It may seem unfair to remark that in recounting Zamperini’s life Jolie’s film manages to do both too much and too little, but that’s the case. The omission of all the post-war material (save for a few brief closing updates) is certainly explicable, since including it would have lengthened the picture substantially; but it nevertheless robs it of a good deal of what’s most inspiring about Zamperini’s story. On the other hand, what it does include—roughly the twenty-five years between 1920 and 1945—is depicted in a curiously stately fashion that, even in the early track sequences, doesn’t generate much energy. The later, longer sections (the time at sea and in the camps), moreover, lack the grit and intensity the material demands. The fifteen or so minutes devoted to the month-and-a-half on the waves naturally can’t match the feature-length treatment of “All Is Lost,” but surely they could have depicted the grime and desperation of the experience more compellingly than the curiously staid, genteel approach adopted here, complete with captions about the passage of time that come across as nothing more than tepid shorthand, allows.
The camp sequences are more expansive, but they too fail to convey the full measure of the suffering Zamperini and his fellow prisoners endured. Many blows are struck and humiliations imposed, and yet everything is presented in such a discreet, even scrubbed form that the sequences carry less impact that those David Lean offered more than half a century ago in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Part of the problem is the cinematography of Roger Deakins; he’s an exquisite craftsman, to be sure, but in this case the precision and luster of his images seem at odds with the horrors they’re meant to portray. The result isn’t unlike that of Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun,” which Allen Daviau’s camerawork similarly made too beautiful for the subject. And while Alexandre Desplat’s music doesn’t go for the jugular quite so blatantly as John Williams’ did in the Spielberg film, it’s still much more conventional than one might expect of him. Otherwise the visual accoutrements—Jon Hutman’s production design, the art direction supervised by Charlie Revai, the set design (by Nicholas Dare, Andrew Kattie and Ross Perkin) and decoration (by Lisa Thompson) and Louise Frogley’s costumes—are all soundly professional, without being exceptional.
If “Unbroken” represents no triumph for its director, writers or craftsmen, however, it does provide an impressive vehicle for Jack O’Connell, whose performance as Zamperini proves that his star-in-the-making status is well deserved. His response to the considerable physical demands of the part is remarkable, but so is the degree of nuance and emotional resonance he brings to a character that does not appear to have been developed deeply on the page. Among the supporting players Miyavi might not capture the terrifying aspect of Sessue Hayakawa, but he compensates with a quiet malevolence that’s almost as frightening, and Gleeson makes a supportive friend for O’Connell’s brutalized hero. The rest of the cast—virtually all male, of course—does a creditable job.
In the end what one gets from Jolie’s film is the feeling that the desire to create a noble, uplifting portrait of a man who never yielded to torture has led the makers to airbrush over its subject’s flaws while downplaying the grimmer aspects of his suffering with an overly decorous approach. One senses the effect “Unbroken” is so strenuously trying to achieve, which only makes more obvious the fact that it falls short of the goal.