“If you can take it, you can make it.” This bit of advice is offered to Louis Zamperini early on in “Unbroken” and delivered in a way that’s meant to be remembered. Considering what Zamperini accomplished in his life, the statement barely taps into the kind of superhuman courage and willpower he demonstrated as both an Olympic runner and a World War II veteran and prisoner of war. Likewise, the movie is all surface level, telling us but never truly showing us what drove this man to overcome so many seemingly impossible obstacles. Imagine the tale of Superman with no back story or any survivor’s tale without the depth of character to illuminate what the protagonist accomplishes.
Newcomer Jack O’Connell stars as Zamperini, and we follow him through one attractively shot sequence after another, of his rise as an Olympian and his ultimate struggle for escape during WWII. A plane crash leaves him and a few soldiers stranded at sea, a terrifying ordeal that leads to another one: being a POW in a Japanese internment camp.
Director Angelina Jolie has crafted a good looking movie with a big void at its center. Even with an expertly crafted production, beautiful cinematography and a subject matter that demands our attention, it never allows us to see inside the mind of its main character. O’Connell gives an intense performance that merits the attention of a promising new actor on the rise. Yet, as raw as his acting gets, we’re only seeing the physical abuse he battles but not the internal light and determination that keeps him going.
Its revealed in a post-script that Zamperini later became a man of faith and confronted his former tormentors. Details like that hint at a richer, less tidy story we’re not seeing and suggest this would work better as a documentary.
“Unbroken” has a sheen and professionalism that reminded me of “Seabiscuit” when it should have played more like “Lone Survivor.” The scenes of aerial combat and the extended survival at sea have genuine grit and excitement. The rest is overly similar to POW movies we’ve seen before. Nothing here matches the tension and psychological suspense of “Rescue Dawn,” which seemed new and daring in comparison.
I’m glad Jolie’s film spotlights a great man and an important topic but it doesn’t dig very deep. Instead of demonstrating or conveying a style as a director, Jolie simply alternates the presentation of the setting. Everything is either pretty and idealized, in a Norman Rockwell manner, or grimy and muddy. The passion Jolie has expressed publicly for this story only comes across on film in little moments. For all the big scenes, what I won’t forget is Zamperini nearly fainting at the sight of his key tormentor re-appearing. Honest, intimate moments like that are too few in this competent but unmemorable film.
Considering how diverse Jolie’s film choices have been and the wild nature of some of her acting choices, I expected more danger, less formula in her second film as director. Her forthcoming “By the Sea,” which she directs and co-stars with her husband, Brad Pitt, is about a couple struggling to maintain their troubled marriage. I hope it makes a greater emotional impact and avoids the by-the-book approach she gave to “Unbroken.”