Despite its many impressive elements, “Unbroken” plays incomplete and unbalanced. The film has made a decision not to tell all of Louis Zamperini’s riveting true story, and that choice costs it in the end.
As detailed by Laura Hillenbrand in a book that has sold 4 million copies and spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list, Zamperini’s epic saga has so much incident and drama it seems as if it couldn’t have all happened to one man. But as Hillenbrand explains, it did:
“The hellion youth; the superlative speed that carried him to the Olympics; the harrowing hours as a World War II bombardier; a plane crash; 47 days and 2,000 miles as a raft-bound castaway; capture; an epic struggle as an enslaved prisoner of war; years entangled in the terrors of PTSD; and a final, beautiful moment of redemption. This was the stuff of legend.”
This was also the stuff that attracted the attention of Angelina Jolie, looking for a directing project to follow her involving debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” She was captivated by Zamperini’s story and Hillenbrand’s book, which is subtitled a story of “Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”
In the interviews she’s given in support of “Unbroken,” Jolie has emphasized the inspirational, redemptive aspect of Zamperini’s life. That refers to the man’s terribly difficult post-war path, including a five-year battle with raging alcoholism and a murderous post-traumatic stress disorder obsession with revenge followed by a Billy Graham-inspired religious awakening that changed his life, all of which makes up the gripping concluding section of Hillenbrand’s book.
Yet this compelling final act of Zamperini’s story is inexplicably dealt with as an afterthought by the film, relegated to a few brief seconds of text on screen before the final credits roll.
This not only robs the tale of one of its most dramatic elements, it also has an unfortunate side effect. Because of the large amount of time spent on Zamperini’s nightmare 2 1/2 years in Japanese prison camps, the exclusion wreaks havoc with the story’s equilibrium, making “Unbroken” into a film about torture more than one about redemption.
That is a shame, because Jolie, working with top-drawer cinematographer Roger Deakins and building on the promise of her first film, does strong, involving work as a director, giving “Unbroken” something of the classic feeling that Clint Eastwood gives to his work, including the one (“The Changeling”) that top-lined Jolie herself.
“Unbroken” also has the advantage of having a terrific young actor, Britain’s Jack O’Connell (excellent in the British indie film “Starred Up”) to play Zamperini. Gifted with emotions but also possessed of a cocky physicality, O’Connell has something of the air of Jimmy Cagney about him as he portrays a man who lives by the code that “if you can take it, you can make it.”
“Unbroken” gives screen credit to a whole platoon of writers — Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson — and it has chosen to start at a particularly dramatic moment, Lt. Zamperini hard at work as a World War II Army Air Corps bombardier flying with his pal, Capt. Phil Phillips (a fine Domhnall Gleeson) on a B-24 bombing raid.
As all havoc breaks loose in the air, the film switches to a series of flashbacks, starting with Zamperini’s hell-raiser childhood as the son of Italian immigrants in Torrance who was beaten by the other kids just for having foreign-born parents. Zamperini was always focused on survival, even then.
Encouraged by his brother Pete (Alex Russell), Zamperini channels his fury into distance running. He gets good enough as a 19-year-old high schooler to make the U.S. team for the 1936 Olympics and runs such a torrid final lap in the 5,000 meters that he gets to chat with Hitler himself. (That meeting, sadly, did not make it into the film.)
Back at the war, Zamperini is sent on another mission that has a catastrophic ending: His plane is shot down over the Pacific, and only three of the 11-man crew, Zamperini, Capt. Phillips and tail gunner Mac McNamara (Finn Wittrock), survive the crash landing.
Zamperini endures a soul-destroying 47 days on a 6-foot-by-2-foot raft, fighting off sharks and drifting for what feels like forever before a Japanese vessel picks him up and sends him to the first of a series of nightmarish prison camps.
The black heart of the nightmare was Cpl. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, otherwise known as the Bird, a man who made inflicting an endless series of brutal, beyond-sadistic punishments on Zamperini his life’s work.
The torture inflicted on Zamperini, including having 220 fellow prisoners hit him in the face, one after another, is so awful that we not only wonder how the man himself endured it, we worry if we will survive its cinematic depiction. Japanese rock star Miyavi does a capable job as the Bird, but his character is finally too similar to bestial Japanese cinematic commanders of the past, from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” to completely hold our interest.
The same can be said, finally, of “Unbroken.” With what we see on screen weighted too much toward pain and too little toward redemption, this is a film we respect more than love, and that is something of a wasted opportunity.