‘Unbroken’ comes from source material so intrinsically exciting and moving that it should essentially makes itself into an effective film. The screenplay was worked on by (amongst a team of other writers) the Coen brothers, who are incapable of writing anything less than brilliant. The cinematography is by Roger Deakins, who only shoots stunning images. In theory, the movie should be a bunt for a director, something damn near impossible to screw up. Enter Angelina Jolie. Never mind. Forget everything I just said.
To be fair, the movie opens with a pretty spectacular bomber attack sequence filled with gorgeous imagery and sweaty-palms suspense. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zampernini then plays out in punishingly corny flashbacks that show his youthful training for running glory and army infamy. Throughout, characters constantly tell Louis (Jack O’Connell) “You can do it” with the type of subtlety usually reserved for Rob Schneider saying those same words to Adam Sandler.
We’re repeatedly told to the point of tedium that this is a strong man with one hell of a will. Then we catch up to that opening sequence where Louis’ plane is shot down over the ocean. He spends weeks with two soldiers on inflatable rafts in the ocean, suffering to survive. The bobbing boat is finally found by a Japanese warship that quickly tosses Louis and his buddy into a P.O.W. camp. From there, the story is a serious of torturous tasks and straight-up torture in a Japanese containment camp. However, as you might have noticed in the painfully pointed flashback material, this Louis guy is tough. He can survive. He will survive. He does survive. It just takes a hell of a long time to get there.
Angelina Jolie is a damn fine actress and a pretty fascinating movie star. Unfortunately, her abilities as a director remain a gigantic question mark. It’s clear that she wants to make important films, given how loudly and desperately her movies cry out to be taken seriously. It’s also clear that she doesn’t want to be dismissed as a director for being a woman, given that both of her fiction features are about horrible violence between men without much of a female perspective. She’s a very calculating person and her films are calculated second-by-second to be perceived well. Sadly, that calculation has completely sucked the life out of both films. ‘Unbroken’ should be a powerful and moving story. Certainly that’s true of Louis Zampernini’s life. But Jolie’s movie is so meticulously constructed to hit all the right beats and elicit all the right emotions that it fails to hit any of them.
The movie feels antiseptic, designed to manipulate so thoroughly that any shreds of humanity have been removed in favor of the shiny filmmaking machine meant to contain them. Yes, it looks pretty thanks to Deakins’ expert cinematography. Yes, the story has moments of immense triumph over adversity. However, they’re so heavy-handed in their presentation and layered with on-the-nose Christian symbolism that they’re too nauseating to register. The pacing is also a mess, somehow transforming a story of countless horrifying events into a tedious train to Dullsville.
The performances are fine, but most of the characters are so indistinct that no one beyond the protagonist and main antagonist register in memory. By the time syrupy concluding text and update footage rolls, you’ll be too busy rolling your eyes and thanking god that it’s finally over to even come close to being moved.
On a technical level, Jolie seems to know what she’s doing, and she obviously has the experience to know how to work with actors. As a storyteller, she’s completely lost, far too concerned with how the final product will be received to craft something that actually flows and delivers. Perhaps those skills will develop over time, or perhaps they won’t. For now, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the fact that Jolie has given up a craft that she exceeds in to focus on one where she can only dream of hitting mediocrity. Let’s hope that she comes to her senses soon.