Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner who survived unbelievable hardships during World War II, is a mesmerizing story of courage and perserverance that is impossible to forget.
So why does Angelina Jolie’s film version of Unbroken feel a bit generic? The movie doesn’t wander far from its source material, though it’s a necessarily shortened version of Zamperini’s ordeal. But somewhere along the way, it acquired the predictable grandeur of the biopic and lost some of its realism and urgency. Jolie and the screenwriters — who include Joel and Ethan Coen — were almost too reverent with the material, recounting Zamperini’s life with an awe that belies the amazing, true simplicity of what he accomplished: He endured.
Still, there’s no denying the elemental appeal of Zamperini’s story, which in Jolie’s version starts in the belly of a B-24 on a bombing run over the Pacific. At first, the lumbering bomber — filled with young airmen who have apparently just taken a break from an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot — bears up under a barrage of flak. But injuries and problems mount, and a safe landing is swiftly in doubt.
Unfortunately, even before we have a good grasp on which one of these pretty boys is Louis — he’s played by British actor Jack O’Connell — Jolie interrupts the tension of this thrilling opening setpiece to flash back to Louis’ childhood in southern California. As you might imagine, it’s a lot less compelling than what’s going on aboard that plane. Jolie could take a lesson in flashbacks from director Jean-Marc Vallée, who used them so formidably in Wild.
From its quick start Unbroken founders a bit as we watch the young Louis stealing and smoking and sulking while his father rages and his mother weeps. Hillenbrand documents Louis’ hoodlum days in her book, and Jolie dutifully records them here, hinting that his stubbornness will serve him well later.
His older brother Pete introduces Louis to the sport of track, spouting many platitudes (“If you can take it, you can make it,” he tells his little brother, and you just know that advice is going to conveniently bolster Louis at a later date). Making a name for himself at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 — the real Louis actually met Adolf Hitler at the games — Louis believes his year to compete for the gold will be in 1940. But Germany and Japan have other plans, and Louis finds himself stationed in the Pacific, where his wartime ordeal begins.
There are horrors on the plane, on a raft — scenes that are less powerful than they are in the book because special effects can accomplish many things, but creating believable waves is not one of them — and finally in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where Louis is terrorized by the camp’s sadistic leader (Japanese musician Miyavi). Endurance is a difficult concept to show visually, so Jolie resorts to the Hollywood moment, such as when a filthy, starving, exhausted Louis is forced to hold a heavy board over his head. If he drops it, he dies. It’s less a tribute to one man’s bravery than a signal to the audience to cheer.
The bigger problem is that neither Jolie nor the script bothers to flesh Louis out as a fully formed person with faults and fears and regrets, which keeps the film from ever capturing you emotionally. Aside from the liquor he swiped as a kid, Louis comes off as noble, so extraordinary his survival is a matter of course instead of a hard-fought, brutal, even lucky victory.
But even the most ham-handed filmmaking can’t entirely wipe out the wonder of this story. Louis Zamperini died in July of this year at the age of 97, and his brief but startling and moving appearance at the end of the movie reminds you of what he — and thousands of others — sacrificed just by being human.
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Russell.
Director: Angelina Jolie.
Screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard Gravenese, William Nicholson. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 137 minutes. War violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language. Playing at area theaters.