Unbroken is based on the novel and true story of Louis Zamperini. His life is a story that must be told. Author Lauren Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) wrote the book and Angelina Jolie picked up directing rights a few years later. Not only does Zamperini’s story make for great inspirational fodder, but when news of the movie arose, it was an early shoe-in to be an award winning film.
The film version of Unbroken jumps between Zamperini’s (Jack O’Connell) time as a bombardier while flying over the Pacific and his life as a track and field runner. These transitions take us to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin and finally to the crash that brought down his plane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Having survived the crash, he becomes adrift for weeks, with sharks surrounding the rafts as the survivors waste away. Even those insurmountable odds don’t stop him. He is eventually rescued…by the Japanese navy. He becomes a prisoner of war and a literal whipping boy for a cruel Japanese general for the duration of the movie.
Zamperini’s life is nothing short of incredible. The work that went into this movie, sadly, is not. It does him no great service.
Unbroken is Jolie’s second directorial effort. Before seeing this, I thought, “How could anyone mess this up?” While Unbroken is far from a mess, it is hollow and focuses on the wrong specifics of Zamperini’s miraculous life. The editing is a near disaster. Awkward cuts and a reliance on dissolve transitions mar the first half of the movie. Also, she doesn’t know when to say when in the POW camp. Surely, these scenes feel the most human, but there’s so much more to his life than constantly being beat down by a cane.
The end credits show a few sentences that summarize a large portion of the book – Zamperini’s life after the war. They feel tacked on when they should have been filmed and given the movie proper closure. His struggle was not only about being the strongest specimen (which the movie focuses on) but having the faith and willpower to live without regret and show charity to those who weren’t allowed to show it to him.
Jolie credits two of her screenwriters, Joel and Ethan Coen, for keeping the sentimentality out of the picture. What a strange boast. This movie largely fails because it has zero sentimentality. His life is meant to be revered. You should want to cry when he finally prevails and is allowed to be the man he’s worked so hard to be. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers account of things he managed to live through. Jolie is not the worst person for this job, but I can think of a handful of directors who would have made this an unforgettable movie.
Now, onto the good. Jack O’Connell is fantastic and shows absolute charisma, even when the screenplay refuses to let him. Being largely unknown here in the states works well for the performance, as he disappears into the role of Louis. Had the movie surrounding him been better, he would have a great chance at being nominated for Best Actor.
Miyavi plays the Japanese camp warden, “The Bird,” who has a penchant for inflicting pain. The scenes between O’Connell and Miyavi, in actual scenes of dialogue, are the best in the movie. You feel the ambition and insecurity through his conflicted character.
Master cinematographer Roger Deakins paints a beautiful portrait through his artful camera work, despite the untested talent calling the shots.
Unbroken will sadly be forgotten in a year of great films. The story is grand, but the experience feels mediocre. To get the full emotional experience that truly exemplifies Zamperini’s life, read the book. If you need to see this movie, rent it purely for Jack O’Connell’s performance and Roger Deakin’s cinematography.