For someone who exudes such edgy unpredictability in front of the camera, Angelina Jolie is a bit square behind it. With Unbroken, her second feature as a director, she turns the undeniably inspiring true story of Louie Zamperini into an oddly old-fashioned drama. It’s gorgeously shot and beautifully acted, and it has moments of heartbreaking poignancy, but it’s also nearly suffocated by its own nobility. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller, Unbroken chronicles the extraordinary life of a man who grew up as the hell-raising son of Italian immigrants, ran for the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics, and was shot down over the Pacific in WWII.
The story, adapted by a small army of A-list writers (Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, and Joel and Ethan Coen), kicks off with a dizzying sense of immediacy. We’re thrown right into the belly of a B-24 bomber as Zamperini (British actor Jack O’Connell) and his crew take fire from Japanese fighters. It’s a hell of an opening sequence. But then Jolie downshifts, flashing back to Zamperini’s childhood, and the film loses its steam as Louie’s older brother spouts portentous clichés (”A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”) intended to get him to make something of himself. It works. Louie becomes a high school track star who’s headed to the Olympics. Meanwhile, to signal to the audience to sit tight, Jolie keeps cutting back to the B-24 as if to say, ”Don’t worry, the good stuff’s coming.”
When the film finally does catch up to Louie’s ditch into the ocean, it finds its harrowing groove again. Louie and two other survivors (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) scramble into a raft where they try to fight off the sun, sharks, and starvation. Discovered by the enemy after 47 days, Louie is sent to a Japanese prison camp run by a sadistic warden (Miyavi), who singles him out for torture. And Jolie, who’s learned a thing or two about the inexplicable horrors of war in her work with the U.N., doesn’t skimp on Louie’s abuse. Still, there’s a strange feeling of both too much and not enough with Unbroken. O’Connell, a real star on the rise who bristled with mad-dog menace in the recent prison drama Starred Up, is totally hypnotic. And the physical deprivation he underwent for the role is impressive. I just wish that Jolie’s film had the same rawness. Instead, it’s moving, admirable, and occasionally exhilarating. What it’s missing is the one thing that could always be counted on with Jolie as a star: the spark of danger. B-