Director Angelina Jolie’s second feature, Unbroken, takes on the real life story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and World War II Prisoner of War. However, does the film strike the inspirational chord it’s looking for?
Yes and no. Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) was an Italian immigrant growing up in America. He got into trouble as a boy (C.J. Valleroy), but was rescued by his older brother, Pete (John D’Leo / Alex Russell), who introduced him to track while in high school. Louie’s athletic talent carries him into the 1936 Berlin Olympics and after that, he enlists in the army to fight his Olympic host, Hitler. He serves as a bombardier and on a fateful rescue mission, is stranded at sea with his pilot, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), and gunner, Mac (Finn Wittrock). After 47 days at sea, he is rescued by a Japanese naval ship and promptly thrown into a POW camp where he incurs the wrath of the camp commander, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), or “The Bird,” as the prisoners call him. The rest of the film details Zamperini’s life in the camps as he fights to survive the torture and grueling conditions.
Zamperini’s story is definitely interesting, mainly because of who he was before the war, but the film’s focus on his POW experiences, makes the whole piece feel a little one note. Zamperini’s early life is covered, but his entire post-war life is glossed over with text footnotes. Depicting the spiritual awakening he experienced after the war that led to his forgiving his Japanese captors may have hit the notes the film is clearly looking to hit. Otherwise the tale is just one of survival and one we’ve seen before. More attention to Zamperini’s time at the Olympics would have been welcome as well. All this isn’t to say that Unbroken is a bad film—it’s not. I found myself engaged throughout, but it just feels like it comes up a little short in the end. It felt like it was missing something to tie it all together. Zamperini’s experiences while lost at sea and in the work camps are harrowing, but a few minutes trimmed here and there, could have been put to better use at other stages in his life. However, the film probably needed to be closer to three hours to tell his whole story and as it is now, it clocks in at around two hours and fifteen minutes.
O’Connell turns in a great performance as Zamperini and is easily the best thing about the movie. He has great charisma and sells Zamperini’s determination. Gleeson is also great as Phil, but I would have liked to have seen more of him. Good performances are also turned in by Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney. Special mention also needs to be made about the cinematography which is handled by living legend Roger Deakins. This is a beautifully-shot film and Jolie does a good job at staging the action and surrounding herself with a great team.
Overall, Unbroken is a good film, but not great. I think a lot of people were pegging this to be the film to beat at the Oscars next year, but the final product just doesn’t elevate enough to those lofty expectations. Not sure if there is one person to blame for that, but I’m sure that cynics will be happy to pile it onto Jolie. There just seems to be an element missing that would have put it over the top. Of course, if you want the whole story, you can always read Laura Hillenbrand’s book, on which the film is based.