If ever there was a true story that deserved big-screen treatment, it’s the life of Louis Zamperini. He packed a lifetime’s worth of events into just about 10 years, running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, joining the military for World War II, surviving 47 days at sea after a plane crash and then enduring years of torture as a prisoner-of-war in Japan.
It’s a story so rich, in fact, that it could probably only be told adequately in book form, which Laura Hillenbrand did masterfully in the 2010 biography, Unbroken. Angelina Jolie has used the same title for her sophomore directorial effort, and even though she does her level best to pay equal tribute to Zamperini, who died earlier this year at age 97, she just can’t quite do his story justice.
Unbroken is far from a bad movie, but when you have a story such as Zamperini’s, you really want it to soar off the screen from minute one.
Jolie, working from a script by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, starts the film with Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) already at war as a bombardier flying missions over the Pacific Ocean. She then uses flashbacks to take us to his childhood, the Olympics and other significant pre-war moments.
From the start, the tone of the film just feels a bit off. One can sense the feelings Jolie is trying to evoke, but the way she stages scenes never really works. For instance, the opening sequence has Zamperini’s plane in the middle of a ferocious air battle, but there is a curious shortage of suspense.
Often that lack of drama seems to stem from the actors’ failing to use the right inflection to elicit the appropriate emotion. But that’s not the result of bad acting but rather a deficiency in their lines.
Other times Jolie pushes too hard for dramatic elements instead of letting them evolve naturally, an unfortunate consequence of adapting a story like this into a movie; a director just don’t have the time to give the full background for certain events. Regardless of the constraints of filmmaking, the first half of the film just never gels.
It’s not until Zamperini and his pilot, Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), arrive at Japanese prison camps that the film captures the essence of the story. Perhaps it’s the visceral nature of the beatings Zamperini takes from guard Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) or his ability to commiserate/conspire with fellow POWs, but the film feels most alive as Zamperini is struggling to survive in Japan.
Just as the film gets better as it goes along, so too does O’Connell’s performance. The English actor ultimately finds a way to make the role his own, showing that we can expect big things from him in the future. Gleeson, Ishihara, Jai Courtney and Garrett Hedlund all deliver solid supporting turns.
Unbroken is far from a bad movie, but when you have a story such as Zamperini’s, you really want it to soar off the screen from minute one. Even though it doesn’t, Jolie finds a way to make a winning film in the end.