Unbroken tells a true story with bright, well-built, Hollywood epic storytelling. That’s fitting, since its subject, Louis Zamperini, lived a full and amazing life, built out of the stuff movies are made of. He’s a man for whom the adspeak “incredible true story” seems to have been made. He was born in 1917, became a juvenile delinquent, then a high school track star, an Olympic athlete, a World War II bombardier whose plane was lost at sea, a captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and a survivor of all the above. I’m sure he was one of the only people who could’ve seen Memphis Belle, Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, Chariots of Fire, and Life of Pi in their original theatrical runs and see something of his own life experience reflected back at him.
The film is an effective dramatization by turns unflinching – gaunt bodies caked in dirt and blood – and sentimental – wistful flashbacks and swelling score. It’s button pushing in that way. It coasts on the easily apparent drama of the story itself, which certainly has enough surface incident to fill a run time. It starts in the skies over the Pacific front in the middle of WWII, a tense dogfight shot completely inside Zamperini’s plane. We linger behind the various gunners and pilots, watching as small dots grow into enemy fighters, spraying bullets and getting return fire. It’s exciting stuff, brightly lit, displayed with convincing effects courtesy Industrial Light and Magic. We then cut back to our hero’s early life, following childhood scrapes through his Olympic competition, notable backstory swiftly filled in. Then we’re back to the war, where his dangers are just beginning.
Directed with smooth competence by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay with credited drafts by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, the film has clear admiration for Zamperini’s resilience. They’re most concerned with portraying his indomitable spirit, returning again and again to his face as Jack O’Connell plays the man staring purposefully past the problems at hand. He’s stranded on a lifeboat with the survivors of his plane’s crash (Finn Wittrock, Domhnall Glesson). They’re lucky enough to be rescued, but unlucky enough to find their rescuers are the enemy. He ends up at a POW camp where he’s beaten by a cruel Japanese sergeant (Miyavi), and falls in with the scarred and weary prisoners (Garrett Hedlund, Luke Treadaway). He looks purposefully into every obstacle, the punches, the backbreaking labor, the blood and bruises. He grits his teeth and lives to see another day. He’s unbreakable.
What gives Zamperini the strength to go on? How did he survive? Was it luck or happenstance? Determination or divine intervention? Optimism or sloganeering? I don’t know. The movie’s more enamored with the facts of his survival than investigating him as a character. It’s a surface level examination, which is fine when the plot’s hopping, but drags down the occasionally monotonous dark night of the soul in the POW camp. The film hits every big mark, but I was starving for small details to color in the time between. There’s never a sense of who the characters are, just what misery they’ve been through.
I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the people trapped in various conditions with Zamperini, or his family, or his captors. They’re simply facts of his life, the elements that make the miraculous extremes possible. There’s some great early details in the young man’s homelife, scenes of discipline, religion, and discovery of his talents. In some ways it plays like the opening moments of a superhero origin story. The film’s first hour is its best, time to follow an eventful life on its first, positive trajectory with energetic sequences of sports and war. But it seems to skip so quickly through these vital foundational moments that by the second hour it starts to feel like a catalogue of miserable incidents where I’d hoped to find a character study wrapped up in epic trappings. Instead, it’s all smaller.
But Unbroken is respectful, handsomely made, and technically proficient. Jolie has cinematographer Roger Deakins behind the camera and he does sharp, solid work. She has a fine cast, and they inhabit their roles convincingly. The editing is propulsive, the sound crackling, the score syrupy strong. In style and perspective – the square, proud, sturdy take – it could’ve been made more or less exactly like this ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years ago. It’s old-fashioned, made with professionalism and care, but it’s also anonymously produced and a bit bland. There’s plenty of craftsmanship put into a story interesting enough on its own the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to really dig into the details. They simply evoke the big moments and trust our interest will follow enough to excuse the all-surface approach.