I never thought I'd say this about a movie, but here goes: I hope Unbroken has a sequel. Or perhaps a prequel. Or anything to tell the rest of the story. Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, which I have not read, is a well-made tease—a shiny but fleeting picture more appropriately categorized as a superhero movie than a biographical drama.
Zamperini’s amazing life is considered the stuff of legends, but that doesn’t mean it actually was a legend (he died at age 97 last July). He was simply a human, by all accounts a man of unmatched integrity, character, generosity, and wisdom. But over the course of 137 minutes, about all Jolie reveals of Zamperini is his name, hometown, and robotic ability to withstand any and all kind of physical and mental abuse. M. Night Shyamalan offered more character depth in Unbreakable.
Director: Angelina Jolie
Producers: Matthew Baer, Angelina Jolie, Erwin Stoff, Clayton Townsend
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, Laura Hillenbrand (novel)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Editors: William Goldenberg, Tim Squyres
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Matthew Crocker, Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Takamasa Ishihara (Miyavi), Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Maddalena Ischiale
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
US Distributor: United Pictures
Unbroken opens with what has become the standard convention in nonlinear storytelling: a gripping action scene to draw the viewer in, as if they need to be convinced to stay for the rest of the movie. (It doesn’t make sense to me, either, but it’s the new normal.) In this case we’re treated to a truly stunning set piece and an impressive technical achievement by Jolie and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. We meet Zamperini as a strapping, charismatic U.S. bombardier on a mission in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Jolie dips into his background through a series of flashbacks jarringly placed between bombing runs, but this critical character development is handled with a rushed sense of obligation.
There are brief scenes, for example, of him as a delinquent youth, aimlessly struggling as a first-generation Italian immigrant until his older brother steers him toward competitive running. (Zamperini competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which is given about 90 seconds of screen time.) I'm told Hillenbrand’s book devotes a great deal of time exploring how Zamperini's childhood and pre-war life instilled him such mental and physical endurance, but Jolie treats it more as filler; you can tell she just wants to get to the rough stuff.
And it gets rough, to be sure. As the rest of the film violently portrays Zamperini’s horrifying war experience—first stranded on a raft in the Pacific for two months, then a prisoner of war for more than two years—we observe him with little insight about the source of his incredible strength. Lots of immigrant kids had tough upbringings and channeled their energy through sport, but we never really understand what set Zamperini apart other than his brother teaching him, “If I can take it, I can make it.” That's it? That's how he made it through hell and back? Unfortunately, Unbroken leaves the remaining 70 years of his post-war life to the imagination, without any reflection on what he endured and how he got through it.
After Jolie signed on to direct the film, the screenplay was rewritten by the Coen brothers, who appear to have stripped it to the bone. Dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum (an alternate title could have been Unspoken), which is a risky move with a director who already stretches scenes beyond their emotional peak. Jolie’s languid, plodding pace makes Unbroken at least 20 minutes longer than necessary, especially frustrating considering how much more of Zamperini’s character could have been examined with that time.
As Zamperini, the British actor Jack O’Connell does an admirable job breathing life into a paper-thin character who spends just about every moment we have with him in pain or agony. He occasionally resembles Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in Terminator 2, capable of enduring physical harm with no facial reaction, but this was likely Jolie’s direction to underscore how tough Zamperini was, even if it instead serves to make him less human. The supporting cast is mostly unknown but very well chosen, particularly Domhnall Gleeson as Zamperini’s fellow raft survivor and POW. One of the more bizarre casting choices is Japanese singer Miyavi as the feared work camp overlord Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, who doles out endless, ruthless punishment at Zamperini’s expense. Making his film acting debut, Miyavi adds a legitimately creepy sexual edge to the violence and abuse, even if his acting is bit on-the-nose.
If there is a reason to see Unbroken in theaters, it is the majestic feast for the eyes courtesy of Roger Deakins, arguably the greatest cinematographer never to win an Oscar (look for him to receive his 12th nomination for this film in January). Whether in the sky, sea, jungle, or Japanese winter, Deakins’ sweeping views and intimate-but-safe lens placements add much needed depth and meaning to the story. There is not a frame in Unbroken that isn’t improved by Deakins’ presence behind the camera, whether capturing Zamperini running down a country road, dodging Japanese planes strafing his life raft, or toiling in a coal mining camp with other sooty POWs. Cinematography is often only appreciated by true film nerds (and I only play one on TV), but this is the kind of unsung excellence that typifies Deakins’ career, and makes a bad movie at least a little less bad.
All things considered, one has to wonder if Zamperini’s life—all 97 years of it—would have been better suited for a documentary that really illuminated the depth of his character. Unbroken shows us that he had a resolve of steel, but not why he had a resolve of steel. As much as I’ve tired of superhero movies over the last decade, I appreciate that the better ones (Batman Begins) provide essential insight into their characters’ fears and motives. Zamperini wasn’t a superhero, and although he may have seemed superhuman, it shouldn't have been so difficult to tell the story of the man, not the legend.