Comparable to reading a biography with informative chunks ripped out, leaving gaping holes aplenty in the narrative, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is little more than an incomplete and wholly misguided rendering of the fight of the human spirit. Chronicling the life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II, Jolie’s second directorial effort following the forgettable In the Land of Blood Honey is a broad, dull, one-note treatment of potentially inspiring material that is entirely devoid of a valid directorial perspective and an overarching sense of wisdom.
The film’s opening provides a false sense of hope that perhaps Jolie has course-corrected herself as a director since her jumbled melodramatic mess of a debut, depicting a tense and claustrophobic scene of Zamperini and a crew of United States Air Force bombardiers taking fire against the Japanese high above the Pacific Ocean. It’s a taut and simple introduction masterfully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins — but after this impressive display of solid filmmaking chops, Jolie opts for full-on lumbering prestige-picture self-seriousness.
After that muscular opening sequence, Louie and two other crew members from his shot-down B-24 bomber (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) find themselves adrift at sea in a life raft for 47 days, during which they dodge shark attacks, fight for food, and miraculously survive Japanese gun attacks from the sky. It’s a familiar setup, but it earns plausibility points for how low-key and practical it is compared to the bombast that characterizes the rest of the film. Unbroken is at the very least agreeable up until the point where Louie and another surviving member are captured by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp where the sadistic guard Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara, known in Japan as the J-pop star Miyavi) grows jealous of Louie and physically punishes him to the breaking point. Only Louie’s endurance (he was an Olympian, after all) and strength of will helps him get through such repeated harshness — but of course, with a title like Unbroken, there is hardly any surprise at the outset, much less suspense throughout the film proper, as to whether he will survive these physical and emotional challenges.
Jolie’s brutal and soulless picture is as improper and offensive a sendoff for a supposedly inspiring figure as one could imagine.
One section of the film is devoted to flashbacks in which we learn about Louie’s troubled youth and his quick transformation into the fastest runner at high school. It’s a talent that lands Louie at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he finishes in last place but manages to speed ahead in the last lap to set an American world record. Though ostensibly meant to give Louie more depth, these inserts instead play merely like filler, offering little of genuine insight other than contributing to the sense that the filmmakers saw their central figure as more symbolic savior than flesh-and-blood human being. These weightless passages come right before the film settles into its grindingly, exhaustingly repetitive portrait of human suffering.
Based on the 2010 book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken is a jumble of three separate storylines — Louie’s backstory, his time trapped at sea, and his torture at the hands of Bird — that attempt to add up to one humanistic representation it never comes close to earning. There exists not a hint of nuance in the film’s intellectual or emotional vocabulary, only blunt-force brutality and a dispiriting lack of dramatic tension. Jack O’ Connell deserves some credit for trying — he shed 30 pounds to play Zamperini and reportedly blacked out several times due to exhaustion while filming some key dramatic scenes — but even his best efforts aren’t enough to redeem such a woefully underwritten part. You would never know, watching his sadly neutered performance, that this was the same promising young actor who brought such primal magnetism to the prison drama Starred Up and the upcoming political thriller ’71.
In the end, all we learn about Louie over Unbroken’s 137 grueling minutes spent with him agonizing over pain is that he lifted a steel beam on command for several hours with a twisted ankle and was the recipient of what feels like hundreds of punches and body whippings. His bouts of spirituality throughout his ordeal are touched on but never mined for anything that would truly transcend the sadism on display. Zamperini died earlier this year on July 2; Jolie’s brutal and soulless picture is as improper and offensive a sendoff for a supposedly inspiring figure as one could imagine.