Just two months ago I remarked on the ubiquity of World War II-as-setting in cinema. That was in my review of Fury, starring Brad Pitt. Well, now Brad’s wife Angelina Jolie is getting in on the action with her latest directorial effort: Unbroken, about the life of Olympic athlete and prisoner of war Louie Zamperini. Jolie is probably known more for her acting career than her directing, but she hopes to change that with Unbroken, a film that has been screaming “awards bait” at the top of its lungs since the first trailer dropped a while back.
Rising star Jack O’Connell stars as Zamperini, who we see serving as a bombardier on a U.S. Army bomber when the film opens. Louie’s plane takes heavy damage during a bombing run, which comes back to haunt the crew on a later mission when the engines fail and they crash in the Pacific Ocean. Louie finds himself adrift alongside the only other survivors – Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock). After 47 days on a raft, the men are rescued, only to be thrown into a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Intercut with this are scenes of Louie’s younger days, his development as a runner, and his participation in the 1936 Olympics. His carefree existence before the war contrasts with his brutal treatment at the hands of camp warden “The Bird” (Miyavi). Bird looks to find the limits of Louie’s resilience, but the young American won’t give in without a fight.
Unbroken‘s greatest asset is O’Connell, who has come out of nowhere in 2014 to present himself as a strong acting presence. His bit part in 300: Rise of an Empire was unremarkable, but his portrayal of a volatile young prisoner in over his head in Starred Up was incredible evocative. He brings much of that intensity to Unbroken, while mining the same strong-willed persistence that carries Troubles-set Irish drama ’71 (which should see proper release sometime in 2015). Zamperini underwent amazing hardship, and O’Connell’s performers shows this struggle in every scene – a truly impressive feat as the action in the picture is not nearly as visceral as it ought to be.
Unbroken is over two hours long, and aside from a few flashbacks (which feel forced into the narrative) it is entirely concerned with Louie’s time on the raft and in captivity. These are arduous and trying experiences, and there is a sense that Jolie wants to recreate that feeling for the viewer. Scenes in the prison camps are repetitive, even in Bird’s abuse of Louie, but they don’t pack the intended punch. Sure, every once in a while there is a scene of violence that drives home just how horrifying the situation is, but for the most part these scenes are boring and monotonous. The pain and hunger is barely felt; Unbroken is more of a slog than a punishing trial, which is a failure in filmmaker intent.
There just isn’t a whole lot to say about Unbroken. The film is almost wholly average, apart from O’Connell’s presence. Often-stellar Roger Deakins’ cinematography is adequate and the Coen Brothers-revised screenplay is lacking in characterization for everyone, especially Miyavi’s Bird. Jolie’s latest film tells Zamperini’s story, but doesn’t being anything fresh to the table.