Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort “Unbroken” is an utterly bland, mostly soulless endeavor. It’s the kind of large-scale historical biopic that comes ready made with words like “inspirational,” “heartbreaking” and “powerful.” But the movie is none of those things. Based on the nonfiction book by Lauren Hillenbrand “Unbroken” tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) an Olympic runner who, after a near fatal plane crash during World War 2, spends forty seven days stranded at sea before being held in a Japanese POW camp. Sure, that does sound like an amazing story and perhaps Jolie and co. thought that the subject matter alone would make up for the tepid, unconvincing execution.
The picture is divided into three sections: Zaperini growing up, Zaperini stranded on a raft at sea with two other surviving soldiers and his time at the POW camp where he’s tormented by a cruel Japanese officer. Each section presents its information and events in the most conventional and boring ways possible. For a movie that involves being lost at sea—with sharks swimming below—and a grueling POW camp there’s hardly a thrilling or intense moment. But worst of all, the picture is emotionally stilted. A lot of times an old fashioned and formulaic historical movie like this can be forgiven if the human element is present, if the connections feel real and intimate. Sadly “Unbroken” is missing that element and therefore I didn’t care about anything that happened.
During the first section—in the form of a flashback—we’re introduced to Zaperini as a young lad who goes from being a troublemaker to an Olympian. He steals a couple bottles of alcohol, gets into a fight with a group of boys, gets lectured by his father, cleans up his act with the help of his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) and becomes the best high school mile runner in the country. Clearly this is supposed to be a defining period in his life but Jolie hurtles through this material like it’s no big deal and sprinkles in some really bad dialogue to compensate. Cheap, hollow motivational phrases such as, “If you can take it, you can make it” or “a lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain,” that foreshadow later events in an obvious and schmaltzy way. On top of that, Jolie does such a shoddy job of establishing the relationship between Louis and Pete that when they say goodbye as Louis is heading off to the Berlin Olympics—the last time we see them until the very end of the movie—you feel no connection whatsoever. And when they’re finally reunited you’ve forgotten that they even had a relationship.
The rest of the movie follows on a similar path, dully going from one plot point to the next without developing character. Interactions between Zaperini and the various people he encounters along the way are cold and inauthentic. Even the attempts at humor—telling jokes, friendly ribbing among soldiers—feel forced and robotic.
Newcomer Jack O’Connell has already proven that he has massive acting talents with the emotionally raw father/son prison drama “Starred Up” from earlier this year. As Zaperini he does the best he can with an underwritten character. For being the center of attention, there’s simply not enough dimension to Louis. He’s resilient; I’ll give him that. When he’s stranded at sea or in the prison camp he won’t let his spirit, or physical body be broken. He’s prideful and loyal to his country; when the Japanese ask him to say negative things about America on the radio in exchange for a better living situation, he refuses. But for a two-hour plus movie that’s not enough substance. Outside of wanting to survive he doesn’t appear to have much personality. And that’s why when you see him do things like having to hold a heavy wooden plank above his head for a day or be shot in the prison camp, there’s no weight behind it. Instead of sitting on the edge of your seat wanting him to succeed, you’re indifferent. With its lack of a compelling protagonist, “Unbroken” lacks an emotional core.
The supporting actors are given even less to work with. Other talented young up and comers like Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) and Garrett Hedlund (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) pop their heads in every so often, barely making an impression. However, Japanese star Takamasa Ishihara is probably treated the worst. As Mutsushiro Watanabe, the leader of the POW camp, he has no purpose other than to be a massive jerk to Louis. There’s no reason for it, especially with a camp full of a hundred other prisoners. It’s almost hard to believe how one-dimensional he is; as if he was yanked straight from a Rambo picture. In a movie purporting to be based on a true story no character should come off this cartoony.
The prison camp section encompasses the majority of the movie’s running time and yet it still manages to become repetitive and unmoving. It either consists of scenes showing Louis going through some kind endurance test or recovering from said endurance test. Jolie makes sure to portray plenty of torture and suffering but since she fails to develop the humanity aspect, these scenes are bloodless. And after a while it begins to feel somewhat egregious. It feels like suffering for the sake of suffering.
“Unbroken” was filmed by master cinematographer and frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins and as to be expected the film is elegantly staged and pretty to look at. At the same time though, considering the subject matter, things can look a little too neat and polished. A movie that takes place in a grimy, muddy POW camp shouldn’t look so clean. And with the lack of story substance or character development the picture can look like a wax exhibit in a World War 2 museum.
Maybe I’m being too hard on “Unbroken.” Maybe if it had been a made for TV movie I would have expected less. But for a major theatrical release loaded with new and old talent I was thoroughly disappointed. In an attempt to make an honest, uplifting and intense account of one man’s incredible story, Jolie has made a dull, by the numbers historical drama.