Louis Zamperini is better than you. Just know that. Despite humble beginnings, the second-generation Italian-American worked tirelessly to become a track star, which led him to compete in the 1936 Olympics. (Damn. Right?) When World War II heated up, he enlisted in the Air Force, which led to a horrific plane crash that left him and his fellow soldiers stranded in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. (Holy shit. Right?) He survived dehydration, starvation, and shark attacks only to fall into the hands of the Japanese forces that threw him into a merciless prisoner of war camp. (Holy fucking shit. Right?)
Zamperini has lived the kind of life people write books about, and did, specifically Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The problem is that when it came to making a movie about this man’s larger-than-life life story, director Angelina Jolie didn’t know when to stop, or really what mattered. The result is a film that feels like a truncated trilogy. Essentially, Jolie pulled a reverse Hobbit, forcefully shoving together three narratives into one film. And what we lose amid so much plot is character.
Jack O’Connell stars as a relentlessly sturdy Zamperini. The English ingendude masterfully adopts a New Yoik accent. He transforms his body from that of a top-notch runner to that of a starved survivor. And all the while, he carries an easy confidence no matter his hero’s highs or lows. But that’s actually where Jolie should have stepped in.
No matter how gruesome or grim Zamperini’s circumstances, O’Connell seems strong, optimist, and sure of himself. Yes, the movie is called Unbroken. However, as it never hints that this character might break, it hurts the dramatic tension to say the least, and at most it keeps us distanced from this supernaturally composed man. Maybe the real Zamperini was just this tenacious and ever-strong. But who cares? In a movie, I want drama, which means a moment of doubt. It’s actually frustrating to see O’Connell—who gave us a scary and broken boy who rebuilds his soul in Starred Up—get so little to do but play a one-dimensional American tough guy.
Simply put - the film isn’t nearly as emotionally resonant as it should be considering the subject matter, and that’s because Jolie never dares to let this man—who she so often has publically sung the praises of—be presented with any flaws. Yet flaws are exactly what screen Zamperini needs if we’re going to relate to him. With stalwart as this protagonist Unbroken is, the biopic feels more like a grandfather’s indictment of his spoiled offspring. “You think this is bad? I used to have to walk three miles to school. In the snow. Up hill. Both ways.”
At 137 minutes, Unbroken is a long movie, and it feels long. Mostly, because it is essentially broken into chapters: the road to the Olympics, the shipwreck, the POW camp. Each is inspiring and has moments of thrill, sure, but not all are equally important. And so with each section, mileage may vary. For me, I found the shipwreck section totally riveting, but mostly because my deep fear of sharks made me feel for these poor bastards left at the mercy of the sea surrounded by perfect killing machines.
Ultimately, Unbroken is a mediocre movie that should have been a great one. Its story is incredible, and better yet true! It has O’Connell, who is one of the most promising young actors out there. It has a script penned in part by American experts Joel and Ethan Coen. But Jolie brings little style or life to the film, perhaps too enamored by the man who inspired it to give it any garnish. Without a strong voice from the director, Unbroken gives plenty of compelling moments, but has no emotional core to tie its distinct triptych of tales together.