Bringing the wartime experience of Louis Zamperini to the screen has been on the Universal Pictures wish list for so long that they once dangled the part to Tony Curtis. There’s nothing like a blockbuster book to suddenly propel a film project into being. Delivering the same sort of clear storytelling and reportorial depth that distinguished her earlier Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand tracked through Zamperini’s youth, athletic feats, military achievements, astounding endurance both lost in sea and as a prisoner of war in Japanese internment camps, and finally struggles with pronounced post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home. There is a staggering amount of story to be told. Hillenbrand’s straightforward approach conveys it with enough implacable authority that even the turns in the story that strain believability are as real as the paper it’s printed on. Hillenbrand’s Unbroken simultaneously begs for a film adaptation and carries the threat that no single screen narrative could possibly capture it. Credit director Angelina Jolie: she gives it her damnedest.
Unbroken is Jolie’s second film in the director’s chair, but her first of this sort of sizable scope. In mounting the daunting project, she assembled a Murderers’ Row of collaborators, led by cinematographer Roger Deakins and a mighty cadre of screenwriters that hold thirteen Oscar nominations among them (to be fair, most of those belong to Joel and Ethan Coen). The result is a film that is obviously assembled with great care, but is sometimes lacking in discernible passion. It is often richly beautiful to look at and has a sturdy structure. The film also lacks the daring and touches of fearless, reckless spirit that are the enlivening qualities of both its subject and its director. Jolie is so reverent to the life story she conveys — not without reasonable cause — that she winds up leaving too much of its messiness behind. And it’s in that messiness that the real story resides.
As Zamperini, Jack O’Connell similarly burrows into the exhausting brutality of the story with admirable commitment, but the movie doesn’t give him enough of a character to play. Since Jolie and her fellow filmmakers decide to primarily focus on the the grueling parts of Zamperini’s experience, the film character is stranded in purely reactive mode, often doing little more than bracing himself for whatever new spiritual and physical pummeling is coming his way and then grinding back to his feet after the blow has landed. It’s impossible to not feel sympathy for Zamperini. Using only the film, it’s nearly as difficult to truly know him in a way that would give his struggle an impact beyond sympathy pains. This problem is crystalized by the choice to reduce Zamperini’s post-war experience to a series of terse onscreen messages that short-change both the echoing trauma he endured and the complicated embrace of religious faith that helped him right his life. It wasn’t only time on a tiny raft in the middle of a vast raft or under the oppressive thumb of Japanese captures that proved Zamperini wouldn’t be broken.