One-hundred thirty-seven minutes is not much time to encapsulate years of cruelty, including 47 days at sea and an excruciating two years spent at a Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. In that time, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, inundates viewers with tidal waves – literal and figurative – of vicarious agony to illustrate the heroic life and improbable triumph of Olympic runner and World War II bombardier Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who passed away in July 2014 at 97.
Jolie’s film is based on Kenyon author Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘89 biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Though heavyweight screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), Richard LaGravenese (Gladiator, Les Miserables) and William Nicholson (P.S. I Love You) converted Hillenbrand’s biography into a screenplay, the dialogue contributed little to the film. In fact, moments of silence often conveyed volumes more, especially when trite platitudes, like the movie’s mantra “If you can take it, you can make it,” dribbled from characters’ lips. Such moments emerged from the very beginning, when the audience witnesses Louie’s rise from childhood delinquency to Olympic glory, thanks to his tough-loving brother Pete (Alex Russell). As the children of an Italian immigrant family, the pair faces social rejection unless they prove themselves worthy. Pete convinces Louie to channel his aggression into running, preaching the aforementioned axiom. Time moves quickly here as Louie, in a montage of close-ups that underscore his ragged breathing and jerking limbs as he wins race after race, overcomes adversity in a matter of seconds.
Louie then departs to run in the Berlin Olympics, but this scene cuts farther to the future when he already is stationed in the Pacific during WWII. In the tumultuous moment when Louie’s fighter plane crashes into the ocean, Jolie imposes a flashback to the Olympics, showing a classic comeback in which Louie, the underdog, ekes out a win. After this moment, there is little reference back to his apparently significant history as an athlete or his relationship with his brother. A moment arises at the Japanese prison when Louie is picked out and ordered to race a warden, but he falls to the dust, juxtaposing his former glory with his war-induced decay. Perhaps it is a given that without his brother’s perseverance, Louie would never have developed the indestructible will to live that drags him through, but his past seems forgotten in the face of danger.
Everything about this film, however, pales in comparison to the inspiring story, including Louie Zamperini’s character itself. The epic story heaves so much in the audience’s direction that there is little left to discern in the way of authentic character. Though this film follows the life of one man, it has very little sense of a real life to it. The Associated Press review of the film captures this sentiment: “Unbroken is a story about Louis Zamperini that seems to have little interest in Louis Zamperini,” it reads (“‘Unbroken’ is Beautiful, but Impersonal, The New York Times, Dec. 2014).
At a harrowing point when Zamperini and two of his fellow soldiers float adrift at sea, the thought might dawn on the viewer that the only distinguishing features of these three men is that one is blond, one has a goatee and one is clean-shaven. They offer drama, grim dialogue drawled in gravelly voices, and a sense of manufactured friendship; apparently these men share a special bond, but it is not felt. Louie’s notable friendship with fellow survivor Phil (Domhall Gleeson) begs for empathy as the two endure one near-death experience after another and are at one point separated, though this does not have anything personal to offer. The viewer is not expected to be able to relate to their experience, but the fact there is no ostensible reason to like either of these men flattens the film.
The gargantuan scale of Jolie’s work jostles the viewer into awe, despite the dearth of personal feeling engendered for the main character. With beautifully rendered high-definition shots, the film captures every moment of weakness set against a backdrop of cruelty, which Zamperini braves. A grandiose music score helps manufacture emotion, with the swell of a string orchestra often hovering just below the surface and rising to a swell of emotion that falls short of authenticity.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times sums up this hollowness: “What the movie ends up in desperate need of is a sense of life made real and palpable through dreadful, transporting details, not a life embalmed in hagiographic awe,” her review reads (“Surviving the Sea, and Cruelties Beyond,” New York Times, Dec. 2014). Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times picks on the film’s tendency toward pain rather than redemption, calling this choice “something of a wasted opportunity” (“‘Unbroken’ indeed, yet Jolie chooses agony over redemption,” LA Times, Dec. 2014). Even online film critic forum Rotten Tomatoes clocked it in at 50 percent, and Metacritic scored it at 59/100 — a failing grade.
But the film has notes of beauty. O’Connell’s dedicated performance evokes a visceral reaction to the horrors Zamperini suffers, but few moments of empathy. His strangely intimate relationship with “the Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara), the sadistic leader of the POW camp, creates the most electricity in the film. Jolie’s sweeping high-angle shots of the vast Pacific Ocean and the claustrophobic quarters of filthy jail cells heighten the senses.
This jarring film is astounding for its foundation in truth, but ultimately falls flat, the most authentic elements sucked into grandeur.