While Angelina Jolie has directed before, it’s safe to say that Unbroken is receiving the most buzz of her work so far. Perhaps it’s the survival story of its lead character or the cinematography, or perhaps just Jolie herself, but is it deserving of the hype? While the cinematography is beautiful and one of the best of the year, and Jack O’Connell’s turn as prisoner of war survivor Louis Zamperini is uplifting, the film’s slow trajectory to its end and its lack of overall feelings of generic war story are what keep it from being better than it is.
Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) is a great runner. His brother (Alex Russell) is so convinced of this that he convinces Louis to join the track team and then goes on to prove that he’s skilled enough, competing in the Olympics and continuing to run until he joins the military and is sent overseas during World War II. While there, his unit is sent on a rescue mission, but their plane malfunctions and crash lands in the Pacific Ocean before they ever get to land. He and two of his fellow teammates and survivors (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Witrock) are stranded there for weeks before they’re picked up by the Japanese military and shipped off to prison, where Zamperini is personally tormented by a man known only as “The Bird” (Miyavi).
The film, based on the novel by Laura Hillenbrand, sometimes feels like its too clean-cut and smooth around the edges. Yes, Louis survived a lot and certainly braved through his awful experiences, but the film is too crisp in relaying his experiences to audiences. Between Zamperini’s time and career in running, going off to war, and then spending time as a prisoner of war, there are a lot of events that Jolie tries to put into the two-hour film and it’s a bit overwhelming and lacks any major emotional push.
At the same time, the film is slow and becomes very tedious as it progresses, and there’s nothing that separates it from any other war film, which is a shame because Zamperini’s experiences are definitely different, but there’s no real indication of that which separates him from any other prisoner of war. The same kind of thing happened with the Colin Firth film The Railway Man, in which the actual experience of the characters overshadowed the execution of the film and left it feeling a bit underwhelming.
Jack O’Connell’s performance is a bit underwhelming, and this is not to discredit him as an actor because he’s shown what he’s capable of in ’71 and so forth, but I feel like it was the script in this case that doesn’t allow him to properly flourish. Perhaps because it was written by several people and there was too much going on in the story to really give his performance any kind of emotional push.
Jolie definitely has an eye for war films, proving that in her feature film directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey. And she definitely uses that eye for Unbroken. The film is muted, beautifully shot, and the actors strive even in adverse conditions, O’Connell going through physical deprivation for his role, but the film is definitely not as emotionally powerful as it should be. Perhaps if Jolie had chosen to focus some of the film’s attention on the aftermath, where Zamperini forgives his tormentor, the film might have taken a more interesting turn. Jolie has a lot of potential as a director as does O’Connell as an actor, even though the film unfortunately does fall a little flat.