The words “based on a true story” can strike dread in the heart of the frequent moviegoer, since so often a film is made no more interesting by the fact that it’s about actual events. The real-life tale spun by “Unbroken” definitely rates as quite a yarn, but it’s a testament to director Angelina Jolie and a team of A-list screenwriters (Joel and Ethen Coen, Richard La Gravenese, William Nicholson, adapting the book by “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand) that it plays out so effectively.
Recounting the extraordinary life story of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell, “Starred Up”) — who ran for America in the 1936 Olympics, survived a plane crash during World War II, stayed afloat for 75 days on a life raft before forced internment in a series of Japanese POW camps — Jolie and company seem to be digging into the Spielberg playbook: The movie offers up sun-dappled nostalgia for Depression-era Southern California, harrowing wartime sequences, and even a shark attack, but it serves them all up with maximum efficiency.
If I describe the superior craftsmanship of “Unbroken” — the stunning cinematography is by the great Roger Deakins, Alexandre Desplat composed the soaring score — in a way that makes the end results seem more like a convertible than a movie, it’s because the film boasts both sheen and efficiency without always delivering an equivalent emotional impact. It’s easier to be awed or impressed by it than moved.
The stirring opening sequence sees bombardier Zamperini trying to manually close the bomb bay doors as bullets zip through the thin metal, wounding and killing his comrades. As pilot Phil (Domhnall Gleeson, “Frank”) and co-pilot Cup (Jai Courtney, “Jack Reacher”) steer the dying plane to a messy landing, Zamperini flashes back to his childhood, where as a young truant and petty thief, he learned from his older brother that he had a talent for running, one that would take him all the way to the Olympics.
“If you can take it, you can make it,” his brother tells him, and that aphorism seems to be the guiding principle for the amount of pain that Louis endures over the course of the movie. (The other axiom his brother shares is, “One moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” and by the end of the movie, Louis has clearly earned several millennia of glory.)
The crew’s next mission is in a ramshackle plane that winds up crashing into the sea, where Louis, Phil, and Mac (Finn Wittrock, “American Horror Story”) fight for survival against the elements, not to mention hungry sharks, for two and a half months before they’re captured by a Japanese troop ship. (In one of the film’s few laugh lines, Louis tells Phil, who hasn’t seen the ship, “I’ve got some good news…and some bad news.”)
Louis eventually winds up at a prison camp run by a preening sadist known to the men as The Bird (Japanese musician Miyavi, making an impressive screen debut), who takes a personal interest in trying to break Louis. When American news sources erroneously report Louis’ death, he gets taken to swanky Radio Tokyo to announce that he’s still alive; when he refuses to make anti-American propaganda broadcasts, he’s returned to The Bird, who punishes Louis by making every other imprisoned soldier punch him in the face.
While “Unbroken” never revels in human suffering, it certainly dwells on it in a lingering way. This is a true story, after all, and Zamperini (who died this year at the age of 97) survived unimaginable horrors, but within the context of the film, the torture starts feeling repetitive and masochistic. By the time Louis winds up at a forced labor camp, also run by The Bird, the film feels like it’s just spinning its wheels and upping the ante of his mental and physical suffering until the eventual Allied victory.
Jolie’s directorial debut was the little-seen “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a film that traded epic sweep for a more intimate but no less brutal story, about a woman’s sexual subjugation during the Bosnia-Serbia conflict. Here she’s working on a much larger canvas, and putting the pieces together with skill, but she seems to have traded in a certain amount of directorial personality in exchange for big and splashy set pieces.
There are powerful moments in “Unbroken,” to be sure, but it also feels like the kind of generically grand-scale movie that five other directors could have made in exactly the same way. (It’s not unlike Ava DuVernay‘s leap from the indie “Middle of Nowhere” to the more sprawling “Selma.”)
Ultimately, the strengths of “Unbroken” far outweigh its flaws; given that we know the fate of its protagonist, Jolie keeps us engaged in his travails, which the similarly-themed “Rosewater” didn’t manage to do. It’s a handsome production, featuring a fine ensemble (that also includes Garrett Hedlund) who remain on-point through what must have been difficult filming circumstances, as well as a potent reminder that the Second World War, for all the glamorizing it endured over the ensuing decades, was as horrifying and devastating as any other conflict in human history.
If nothing else, “Unbroken” may set the stage for an even greater third film for Jolie, one that marries her first project’s soul with her latest movie’s scope. Whatever else, this impressive sophomore feature, at its best, stands as a stirring, sweeping, and lacerating tale of one man’s superhuman endurance.