Film Review: ‘Unbroken’

Jack O'Connell plays Olympic athlete and American war hero Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's well-mounted but underwhelming WWII drama.

Unbroken Movie Angelina Jolie

Impeccable craftsmanship and sober restraint have been brought to bear on “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s beautifully wrought but cumulatively underwhelming portrait of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner-turned-U.S. Air Force bombardier who spent 47 days lost at sea and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese military during WWII. In re-creating the nightmarish journey so harrowingly relayed in Laura Hillenbrand’s biography, Jolie has achieved something by turns eminently respectable and respectful to a fault, maintaining an intimate, character-driven focus that, despite the skill of the filmmaking and another superb lead performance from Jack O’Connell, never fully roars to dramatic life. A bit embalmed in its own nobility, it’s an extraordinary story told in dutiful, unexceptional terms, the passionate commitment of all involved rarely achieving gut-level impact.

With a major awards push for Jolie and her topnotch collaborators — d.p. Roger Deakins, composer Alexandre Desplat and editors Tim Squyres and William Goldenberg not least among them — Universal should be able to court a sizable worldwide audience for this capably stirring, morally unambiguous and classically polished prestige picture about an unusually spirited member of the Greatest Generation who survived a hell beyond anyone’s imagination. (Zamperini died in July at the age of 97, due to complications from pneumonia.) After languishing in development for decades, the project finally took viable shape with the 2010 publication of Hillenbrand’s book, adapted here by the unlikely team of the Coen brothers (in their third scripting-for-hire gig, after 2012’s “Gambit” and 1985’s “Crimewave”), Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson.

Regardless of their individual contributions, none of the credited writers faced an easy or enviable task in fashioning a feature-length narrative out of their exhaustively researched source material (for which Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini 75 times over the course of eight years). In runners’ parlance, “Unbroken” feels like a good, steady 10k where a marathon was arguably called for: For all its scenes of intense deprivation and extreme brutality, the film never quite manages, over the course of 137 carefully measured minutes, to reproduce the feeling of a sustained endurance test. Nor does it succeed in dramatizing the human need for faith and forgiveness, one of its more baldly stated themes, in more than perfunctory, platitudinous terms.

Of course, to expect any movie to place the viewer directly into Zamperini’s spiked cleats, or even begin to approximate the depth and horror of his wartime experiences, would hold it to an impossible standard. Yet the bar is set unreasonably high from the moment “Unbroken” introduces itself as “a true story,” a presumptuous choice of words (the “based on” qualifier is conspicuously absent) that the script never fully earns as it guides us through a series of conventional, connect-the-dots flashbacks. An exciting aerial-combat prologue finds O’Connell’s Louis  — or Louie, as he was more commonly known — flying a rickety B-24 bomber over the Pacific, where he and his comrades drop their payload on Japanese bases, shoot down Zero planes and take plenty of fire in return.

In short order we’re introduced to Louie’s younger self (a perfectly cast C.J. Valleroy), a restless, often bullied and misunderstood kid from Torrance, Calif., whose trouble-making antics give his Italian immigrant parents (Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato) no shortage of grief. Yet his older brother Pete (played at different ages by John D’Leo and Alex Russell) soon recognizes that Louie’s talent of getting himself in and out of various scrapes has made him an uncommonly fast runner, and before long the kid is not just a high-school track star but a local legend, hailed in the papers as “the Tornado of Torrance.”

“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” Pete tells his brother, in one of those handy, endlessly recyclable nuggets of thematic wisdom that will resonate just a few short scenes later, when 19-year-old Louie makes it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and places a not-too-shabby eighth in the 5,000-meter race. Although there’s a brief glimpse of Jesse Owens (Bangalie Keita) and swastika flags, foreshadowing events on the not-too-distant horizon, the film notably omits such juicy details as Louie’s brief handshake with Hitler, focusing instead on the lad’s quicksilver ability to defy the odds, to evince a sudden burst of speed or stamina when it counts most — whether that means overtaking his more seasoned opponents on the track, or surviving the horrific ordeal that awaits him on May 27, 1943.

On that day, a B-24 crashes into the Pacific, killing eight men aboard and leaving Louie stranded at sea with his pilot, Capt. Russell Alan “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and tail gunner, Sgt. Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock). Bobbing along in two life rafts with dwindling rations, fending off attacks by neighboring sharks and Japanese bombers (at one point simultaneously), the three men will last more than a month before Mac succumbs, leaving Phil and Louie to drift, sun-scorched and emaciated, for another 15 days or so. Yet the film’s attempts to convey the slow, arduous passage of time feel rushed and noncommittal, effectively cherry-picking the book’s more memorable nautical setpieces and adding a few temporal markers (“Day 18,” etc.), quick visual dissolves and the stately swells of Desplat’s score. Following a recent wave of intensely immersive survival stories (“All Is Lost” makes a particularly instructive comparison), “Unbroken’s” streamlined, checklist-style approach seems all the more rote and obligatory.

The sense that we’re getting the slightly watered-down version persists when Louie and Phil fall into Japanese hands and are sent to Omori, a POW camp in Tokyo. The two friends are forcibly separated, and for the film’s remaining hour or so, Louie will have a far less welcome companion in the form of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), aka “the Bird,” a terrifyingly sadistic Japanese army sergeant who immediately takes a special interest in this quietly defiant American prisoner, in whom he sees a flickering shadow of his own ferocious life force. Yet Watanabe’s affection manifests itself in the most brutal possible way, as he beats his favorite mercilessly with a kendo stick for minor or nonexistent infractions (the camera rarely flinches even when our hero does), at one point even forcing the other prisoners to line up and punch Louie in the face for no reason, one by one.

Jolie previously examined the dehumanization of war in her little-seen 2011 directing debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a muddled but provocative drama set in 1990s Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Unbroken” serves up a similarly relentless catalog of wartime woes — filthy conditions, crippling thirst and hunger, back-breaking labor, nonstop verbal and physical abuse, nasty injuries, ritualized humiliations, and the hopeless knowledge that an Allied victory will only bring about the prisoners’ execution. Yet there’s something unmistakably soft-edged, if not sanitized, about these PG-13 horrors, the accrual of which produces a curious sort of paradox by film’s end: What we’ve seen is at once plenty grueling and nowhere near grueling enough, on the basis of what Zamperini really went through. (“Where’re the maggots? Where’s the dysentery?” my screening companion whispered over the closing credits, unsatisfied by a relatively tasteful scene of Louie and his fellow inmates disposing of their presumably disease-ridden excrement.)

Any dramatic account of real-life events must of course filter and condense, yet several omissions in “Unbroken” are especially telling: We’re denied any real sense of the young Louie’s insatiable appetite for mischief; nor do we see him and his comrades conversing in secret code, or paying hilariously flatulent tribute to Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, or conceiving a desperate plot to murder Watanabe — or, barring that, inducing a crippling bout of diarrhea that puts the miserable sergeant out of commission for more than a week. Jolie sensitively conveys the solemn intimacy and tender camaraderie that arise among men at war, but she never captures these soldiers in all their bawdy, rough-and-tumble vigor and rebellious energy; nor does she evoke the fire in Zamperini’s belly that made him not just a survivor but a natural-born leader, his instincts and intellect as nimble as his feet.

To its credit, the movie doesn’t shy away from showing Louie praying his way through much of his ordeal, at one point promising to dedicate his life to God in the unlikely event that he survived. (He did, and he did.) Indeed, “Unbroken” is not above turning its subject into a sort of 20th-century Christ figure, namely when the Bird forces Louie to lift a heavy beam over his shoulders and hold the position for what feels like hours on end. Yet the dramatic seeds that are planted here never fully take root: Zamperini’s post-rescue conversion and his subsequent attempts at a moral reckoning with his captors are dispensed with in the closing titles, leaving you blinking at the unrealized potential of a longer, bolder and more spiritually inquisitive movie than this one.

Where Jolie’s restraint pays off is in her keenly concentrated focus on Louie’s interior journey; there is a brief cutaway to the distressed Zamperini family at a logical point in the narrative, but little in the way of contextualizing dates and details, and only the barest of allusions to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the war draws to a close. All in all, given its subject, “Unbroken” is a remarkably quiet picture; the men’s dialogue exchanges tend toward the terse and sardonic, while the silences are often freighted with tension and anxiety, and Jolie wisely lets much of the drama play out in her actors’ unfailingly eloquent faces.

It’s been a while since a young male performer seized the screen with such startling force as O’Connell, whom festival and arthouse audiences may know from his excellent performances in the recent “Starred Up” and the forthcoming “’71.” The conception of his character here may leave something to be desired, but O’Connell’s acting has rarely been more soulful or delicate: Once more he has placed his extraordinary physicality in service of an intensely demanding role, requiring him to run like the wind, stand as still as a stone and undergo any number of weight fluctuations in between. Yet it’s also a performance built from innumerable fine-grained details — a suddenly clenched posture or a quickly downturned glance, to name two of Louie’s natural responses whenever the Bird appears.

Miyavi, a Japanese singer-songwriter making his bigscreen debut, was a smartly counterintuitive choice for the role, and if he never quite nails the perverse sexual rapture that Watanabe derives from the abuse he dishes out, the actor more than upholds his half of the film’s sinister psychological duet. (He also may help stir his fans’ interest in a picture whose matter-of-fact treatment of Japanese brutality will require especially careful handling in Asian markets.) Gleeson, going blond for a change, is excellent as the faithful friend who serves as an occasional spiritual guide to Louie; of the other soldier roles, Garrett Hedlund has the most substantial screen time as Louie’s ally Cmdr. John Fitzgerald.

Whether shooting on land, in air or at sea (with Australian locations ably standing in for all three), Deakins delivers unsurprisingly beautiful images of exceptional richness and clarity. The visuals achieve a particularly vivid sense of place in production designer Jon Hutman’s meticulous re-creations of Omori and Naoetsu, the camp to which Zamperini was transferred in March 1945; no less impressive is the fluidity of the camerawork in and around the tight interiors of the B-24s, enhanced considerably by the input of adviser Bob Livingstone. Even when the characters’ faces and bodies are smudged with blood, mud, soot and worse, the technical package is never short of immaculate.

Film Review: ‘Unbroken’

Reviewed at Writers Guild Theater, Beverly Hills, Nov. 30, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 137 MIN.

  • Production: A Universal release presented with Legendary Pictures of a Jolie Pas, 3 Arts Entertainment production. Produced by Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer, Erwin Stoff. Executive producers, Mick Garris, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni. Co-producers, Michael Vieira, Holly Goline-Sadowski, Joseph Reidy.
  • Crew: Directed by Angelina Jolie. Screenplay, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Camera (color, Alexa digital, widescreen), Roger Deakins; editors, Tim Squyres, William Goldenberg; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jon Hutman; supervising art director, Charlie Revai; art directors, Bill Booth, Jacinta Leong; set decorator, Lisa Thompson; set designers, Nicholas Dare, Andrew Kattie, Ross Perkin; costume designer, Louise Frogley; sound, David Lee; supervising sound editors, Andrew DeCristofaro, Becky Sullivan; sound designers, Eric A. Norris, Jay Wilkinson; re-recording mixers, Frank A. Montano, Jon Taylor; special effects supervisor, Brian Cox; visual effects supervisor, Bill George; visual effects producer, Steve Gaub; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic, Animal Logic, Lola VFX; stunt coordinator, Glenn Boswell; assistant director, Joseph Reidy; casting, Francine Maisler.
  • With: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Alex Russell, John D'Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, Maddalena Ischiale. (English, Japanese, Italian dialogue)