'Unbroken': Film Review

A well acted and visualized, if not fully rendered, telling of a fine book and a great life.

Jack O'Connell is a pleasure to watch in Angelina Jolie's accomplished second outing as a director

A great true story is telescoped down to a merely good one in Unbroken. After a dynamite first half-hour, Angelina Jolie's accomplished second outing as a director slowly loses steam as it chronicles the inhuman dose of suffering endured by Olympic runner Louie Zamperini in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Wonderfully acted by Jack O'Connell in the leading role and guided with a steady hand by Jolie without unduly inflating the heroics or injecting maudlin cliches, this will be a tough film for some to take. But it also has strong appeal as an extraordinary survival story, and Laura Hillenbrand's first-rate book, which inspired it, has not been on the best-seller lists for four years for nothing. A robust box-office future should be in store at home and abroad.

Jolie's spectacularly noncommercial first feature, the 2011 Bosnian war drama, In the Land of Blood and Honey, nonetheless proved that she could direct, an assertion more than confirmed by the vivid you-are-there opening of Unbroken. Without preamble, the film puts you on board a B-24, one of many sent out on a U.S. bombing raid of a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. There's a real sense of the heaviness of the metal that somehow defies gravity as it grinds through the air, as well as an intense awareness of how all the men, from the guys in the cockpit, to the exposed gunners in their turrets, to the bombardier, Zamperini, depend upon each other to do their jobs. And, as the fast Zeroes approach and start firing on the Americans, the sound and speed of events are both pulse-quickening and sobering reminders of how arbitrary life and death are in combat.

Read more 'Unbroken' Unveiled: Angelina Jolie's War Pic Finally Arrives

Speed, in fact, is the essence of Zamperini's life, to which flashbacks to his youth in Torrance, Southern California, attest. A little Italian-speaking troublemaker during the Depression, young Louie (a likeable C.J. Valleroy) is pushed by his older brother Pete (first John D'Leo, then Alex Russell) to take up track, where he becomes such a sensation that he eventually makes the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. The scene of the American's race there is exciting, but for some reason Jolie decided to forgo the "Hitler moment" that will be remembered by readers of the book, wherein the Fuhrer and Louie had a brief encounter. Perhaps the director decided this would be distracting, but it's hard not to feel it as a missed opportunity, in that Louie was actually face-to-face with the man who would set off the firestorm that would soon engulf him and the rest of the world.

The brilliantly staged crippled landing of the initial bombing expedition spookily foreshadows a second flight, a search for lost fliers in a patched together plane that, in a harrowing scene, makes a crash landing and breaks up in the middle of the Pacific. The only survivors are Louie, his blond pilot buddy Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and a new crewman they don't really know, Mac (Finn Wittrock), who array themselves on two yellow life rafts and hope for the best.

The least one can say is that their experience is rather more mundane than, but perhaps equally perilous to, that of the solitary lad lost at sea in Life of Pi. As the merciless sun bears down, the men become crispy red and try to keep talking to maintain their alertness. Sickened by raw gull meat, they are sometimes lucky enough to grab the odd sea creature, prompting Phil to observe that the Japanese eat their fish raw. Sharks swim menacingly around the rafts, and what the men hope is a friendly plane passes by, only to reveal itself as Japanese when it strafes them. Mac expires, but Louie and Phil manage to last 47 days before being picked up by a Japanese warship.

As realistically as the men's deprivations are depicted in the film, the half-hour the film spends at sea simply can't render the sheer, slow agony the book so effectively conveys —the doubts, struggles, delirium, mood swings, surpassing hunger and thirst, and constant sense of peril; surprisingly, the narrative goes a little slack during this central stretch. Still, despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation, Louie's survivor's spirit emerges unmistakably here, a tenacious bond with life he won't easily relinquish. Phil has religion to get him through, Louie merely the memory of his brother's corny slogan, "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory."

Read more Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt Step Out for 'Unbroken' World Premiere in Sydney

More than one moment of pain awaits him, unfortunately, at his next destination, a jungle hellhole where he and Phil are stashed in separate cells barely big enough to contain them. Unlike Hillenbrand's book, the film is unable to convey the staggering misery they were forced to endure in the form of dysentery and other diseases, infinitesimal rations, enforced silence and perpetual fear. The only sort of punishment Jolie seems confident to present cinematically is of the corporal persuasion, which is what Louie encounters repeatedly at the hands of new camp commandant Wantanabe (Miyavi), nicknamed "The Bird," a malicious sadist who zeroes in on the athletic American from the outset and never lets up, striking him repeatedly with his wooden stick, forcing fellow inmates to hit him in the face and otherwise abusing him for reasons both recreational and deeply twisted.

The large cell block in the new camp allows its inmates to talk, share rumors and otherwise fraternize in a way that takes a lot of the edge off despite their jeopardy. Nothing we see conveys the grave threat the men were constantly under (more than a third of all Allied POWs under the Japanese died in detention, compared to only one per cent under the Germans), and the tension is further alleviated by an interesting but comparatively relaxed interlude in which Louie is urged to broadcast on the radio, which at least serves the purpose of letting America and his family know that he's still alive.

Transferred to yet another camp, Louie is pushed to the virtual breaking point, leading to a climactic scene which, the way Jolie stages it, throws off unmistakable crucifixion reverberations. These don't seem specifically warranted by any other internal dramatic factors even if they do, in fact, relate to the religious conversion Louie underwent postwar, but are detailed in the book but are only mentioned onscreen in a passing end title.

One other great moment from the book that, oddly, doesn't turn up onscreen is the American prisoners noticing a spectacular sight in the far distance, which turns out to be one of the atomic bomb explosions that soon brought the war to an end. It's hard to imagine this wouldn't have made for an arresting, even surreal visual interlude.

Read more New York Film Fest: ''71' Offers Showcase for 'Unbroken' Star Jack O'Connell

What Jolie succeeds in doing to a substantial degree is representing her hero's physical ordeal and his tenacious refusal to give up when it would have been very easy to do so. What she and her more than estimable quarter of screenwriters — Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson — have not entirely pulled off is dramatizing the full range of Louie's internal suffering, emotional responses and survival mechanisms. Nor have they made any of the secondary characters pop from the anonymous background of prisoner extras. In the great old studio days of the 1930s, writers, directors and and actors knew how to give supporting roles real character and sharp identities within a few seconds; such is emphatically not the case here.

Just recently recognized outside the U.K. due to his work in Starred Up and 300: Rise of An Empire, O'Connell is a pleasure to watch at all times here. He has energy, seems watchful and resourceful by instinct, is open to others and, crucially, seems like a man who, even when he doesn't necessarily win, will nonetheless prevail. Always able to roll with the punches, physical and otherwise, he looks and sometimes behaves like a lively terrier.

The flashy role of the dreaded Bird is charismatically filled by Japanese singer Miyavi. Jolie could have done a bit more to build up the character's mythology and the sense of dread he imparts. But the young actor, working mostly in English, has a beauty and good sense of timing that serve him well in this malevolent part.

The substantial aviation material looks quite real, no matter how effects-generated it may be, and Roger Deakins' cinematography has a rugged elegance that, combined with the general play of light and dark, gives the film a richly satisfying palette. Jon Hutman's production design and Louise Frogley's costume designs display a proper sense of period verisimilitude as well as good, clean lines.

Production: Jolie Pas, 3 Arts Entertainment
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadway, Alex Russell, John D'Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Producers: Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer, Erwin Stoff
Executive producers: Mick Garris, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Jon Hutman
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editors: Tim Squyres, William Goldenberg
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Francine Maisler

PG-13 rating, 137 minutes