Angelina Jolie’s sophomore effort as a director is a high-profile adaptation the true-life book Unbroken (written by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Sea Biscuit). Those unaware that the film is based on historical events might understandably assume it to be an updated version of the Bible’s “Book of Job.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine someone suffering more forcefully than Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), whose ordeals during the 1940s might be summarized by an extension of a familiar cliché: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire, and back into the frying pan again.” In the short space of a few months, he is nearly shot out of the sky while engaged in a bombing mission, lives through a plane crash, spends six weeks with two companions adrift in a life raft on the Pacific (with little food and water and sharks never far away), and endures a stint in a Japanese prisoner of war camp where his status as a “celebrity” makes him a target. As the title indicates, he comes through all this bowed but unbroken.
Jolie’s account is mostly accurate but coldly clinical. The story is effective in relaying Zamperini’s narrative but lacks both the gut punch one often gets from prisoner-of-war narratives and the full catharsis one expects at the end. It’s emotionally distant, as if Jolie is reluctant to explore the distress that might come from a close bond between the viewer and the character. It’s hard to determine whether the primary fault lies in her directorial choices or in the screenplay, which was re-written by the Coen Brothers from material developed by Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. This is only the third time the Coens have scripted something they haven’t directed and one wonders whether their take on the material might not have translated when shepherded to the screen by another filmmaker. Whatever the reason, however, Unbroken’s impact is muted.
Still, there’s a lot to like about the movie. Its presentation is straightforward, chronicling Zamperini’s amazing tale without flinching. The pace is brisk, allowing the film’s 137 minutes to pass smoothly; it never overstays its welcome. The acting is strong across-the-board and there aren’t any too-familiar faces to jar viewers out of the overall experience. (Unlike Brad Pitt’s small part in 2013’s Oscar-winner, 12 Years a Slave.) Jack O’Connell’s performance is strong and the portrayal of Miyavi as Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe, the sadistic commander of the camp, bubbles with malice. He’s the kind of villain an audience can relish hating and whose inhumanity elevates Zamperini’s struggle. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is top notch with some of the aerial scenes rivaling those of the best war films. Unbroken is probably headed for some degree of Oscar consideration and Deakins’ work should be acknowledged with a nomination.
The period detail is strong and, although the prison camp looks much like every other prison camp to have appeared in movies since the 1940s, it emphasizes the bleakness of the situation for those trapped there. Although the production boasts a serious tone (as befits a story of this nature), there are times when the Coens’ gallows humor peeks through. For example, when rescue finally arrives after weeks on the high seas, it comes at the hands of the Japanese. Zamperini announces the situation to his surviving companion (played by Domhall Gleeson): “I’ve got some good news and some bad news…”
For Jolie, making Unbroken was an undisputed labor of love; she fought hard for the opportunity. It’s an ambitious undertaking for someone with only one previous film under her belt (2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey) – perhaps too ambitious. Jolie’s documentary-inspired approach has its share of strengths and drawbacks. The former make Unbroken a good film while the latter prevent it from attaining greatness.