Angelina Jolie’s sophomore feature, Unbroken, is the kind of film that you could probably only sit through once. Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, Unbroken tries to give legs to the harrowing true story of a man’s journey from celebrated athlete to Japanese prisoner of war. This film, which Jolie terms her “passion project,” brings together Hollywood heavyweights behind the screen. The Coen Brothers (True Grit), Richard LaGravenese (P.S I Love You), & William Nicholson (Gladiator) join Jolie as screenwriters with Universal Pictures distributing. Jolie commits to an honest account of the brutality inflicted upon Zamperini during the film’s 137-minute runtime, but in doing so forgets that everyone’s tolerance for pain is not quite as limitless.
As someone relatively unfamiliar with Zamperini’s story, I found myself completely blindsided by the physical violence targeted at Zamperini. The script does equip the audience with enough positive reinforcement (“if you can take it, you can make it”) to withstand the mental wear and tear of this journey, but Jolie’s depiction of Zamperini’s physical deterioration leaves the viewer helpless. By the middle of the second act, I lost sight of the storyline in hopes that the film – and gratuitous violence- would just end. Ironically, Jolie’s intention to highlight Zamperini’s unwavering strength actually backfires and leaves the audience drowning in feelings of despair and hopelessness. Simply put: Unbroken breaks the viewer.
Ironically, this defeat is mainly the result of strong casting. Notably, the phenomenal acting of the cast actually makes the movie harder to watch. The actors so completely embody the physical and emotional impact of this story that every movement feels intensely personal. Kudos to the casting director for picking a crop of insanely talented fresh-faces. Everyone from leading men Jack O’Connell (Louis Zamperini) and Takamasa Ishihara (The Bird) to the extras playing war prisoners take on their roles commendably. Aside from a few clichéd one-liners such as “I’m not like you. I’m nothing. Just let me be nothing,” O’Connell is the perfect underdog: rough around the right edges, cute but not distracting, resilient but not self-righteous. Equally impressive is Takamasa, who stuns in his debut performance as the sadistic Japanese officer, The Bird.
Less commendable is the structure of the film. Jolie shies away from presenting a linear history of Zamperini’s life in favor of a series of three interspersed storylines that work better separately than conjoined. The film begins with Zamperini’s time in the Service during World War Two, when he narrowly escapes death during a combat mission. If there’s anything to learn from the first ten minutes of the film, it’s that death has a particular fascination with Louis Zamperini. From here, we dive into Zamperini’s past as a rebellious youth unable to stay out of trouble.
He drinks, he fights, he wreaks havoc on his parents, but it’s clear that he’s not a bad kid; perhaps just one in need of a constructive hobby. Enter Zamperini’s older brother Pete (Alex Russell), who encourages Zamperini to begin running. This relationship proves to be extremely influential in Zamperini’s life and endures throughout the entirety of the film. Pete’s face and voice help Zamperini cope during particularly difficult situations (that and his mother’s gnocchi recipe). These short-lived flashbacks give the audience something to cling to, notably at the end of the first act when the audience watches in horror as Zamperini and his flight crew crash into the Pacific Ocean and fight to stay alive for 47 days.
Each story within the larger film—Louis’ coming of age, Louis stranded in the Pacific ocean, and Louis as a war prisoner—highlights the technical successes of the film: a strong supporting cast, beautiful cinematography, and thoughtful directing. Each piece is digestible on its own, but together they lack enough positive momentum to outweigh the film’s crushing exploration of degradation. This would be fine if not for Jolie’s insistence in classifying this film as one of “forgiveness and unity.” These traits do appear in contained amounts throughout the film. For example, during the end credits when real footage of Zamperini’s friendly return to Japan triumphantly plays on the screen, we get a sense of what Jolie means by “forgiveness and unity.” These moments, however, fail to calm the burning rage that has formed in the pit of my stomach. It’s too little, too late.
By the film’s end, Zamperini has survived shark attacks, near starvation, countless beatings, mental deterioration, and two plane crashes. If not for Hillebrand’s critically acclaimed biography of Zamperini and extensive input from Zamperini himself, I would argue that surviving one—let alone all—of these events is all but impossible. That Zamperini not only lived through these events but also returned to Japan to make peace with his captors is a testament to the unwavering sense of unity and forgiveness that inspired Jolie. That I never want to see this film again is a testament that her aspiration was not completely successful.
A film that’s not for the lighthearted, Unbroken loses its way in the harrowing story of Louis Zamperini.