On paper, the life story of Louie Zamperini would seem the stuff of which great movies are made. Olympic track star Zamperini volunteered at the start of World War II and became an Army Air Corps bombardier. He wound up surviving a plane crash into the ocean, 47 days adrift on a raft and 2-1/2 years in a Japanese POW camp where his captors abused him mercilessly. And he lived to tell his inspiring tale of perseverance and courage. So why is director and co-producer Angelina Jolie’s Zamperini biopic Unbroken so hopelessly flat and uninvolving?
Basing her film on author Laura Hillenbrand’s acclaimed bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Jolie had no trouble attracting world-class talent to the project. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen are among those credited with writing the screenplay, and longtime Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins crafted the film’s glowing widescreen images. Up-and-coming British Jack O’Connell (Starred Up) makes a convincing Zamperini, and Japanese rock star Miyavi successfully plays against type as sadistic prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe.
But Unbroken is the kind of film where the phrase, “If you can take it, you can make it” is presented as the height of profundity. For all its sincere effort, Unbroken fails to reveal anything substantial about the man behind the heroics. It avoids altogether the severe post-traumatic stress disorder that shaped Zamperini’s life after the war, along with his eventual forgiveness of his captors. Those events are the primary source of meaning in Zamperini’s story, and this long and slowly paced film can only spin its wheels without them.
Unbroken starts today, December 24, at the Canal Place, Elmwood Palace, Clearview Palace, and Westbank Palace theaters.