Unbroken: Angelina Jolie’s Well-Meaning, Inspirational but Conventional Biopic of Louis Zamperini

unbroken_posterWith “Unbroken,” her second film as a director, star Angelina Jolie has made an extremely old-fashioned Hollywood movie: an inspirational war picture about real-life hero, the Olympic athlete-turned-WWII soldier Louis Zamperini.

There has been a lot of press about Jolie wanting and fighting to tell the incredible story of Zamperini, who died several months ago at age 97.  However, based on the conventional movie on screen it’s hard to tell her motivation as she has made a well intended but utterly conventional movie that ironically feels impersonal and emotionally underwhelming.

As is well known, Zamperini survived weeks adrift in an open boat after his plane was shot down over the Pacific during the Second World War, then endured a horrific period in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Though high-minded, well-intentioned, and impressive in sheer technical scale but not in depth or significance, this Unbroken is a movie that doesn’t take any narrative or emotional risk,  instead opting for a safe, mainstream mass entertainment, in which there is no work for the audience to be done but sit back and watch the horrific and horrifying survival of one incredibly strong and powerful individual.

Unfortunately, “Unbroken” is a movie in which the parts are more important than the whole, a survival saga that feels familiar (and generic), despite the particular historical and political circumstances of its undeniably heroic protagonist.

The very first sequence is arguably the film’s most thrilling one, due to Jolie’s strategy of introducing her hero. Played impressively by newcomer Jack O’Connell, Zamperini is shown as a B-52 bombardier on a flight as the US is pushing the Japanese back across the Pacific. He drops his bombs before being forced to grapple with a stuck bomb-bay door as his plane takes fire from enemy fighters.

The narrative is roughly divided into three chapters.  In the first (and shortest),  Zamperini is depicted as a young Italian immigrant boy, who demonstrates some impressive athletic chops; they are first revealed , humorously, after he is discovered peering up girls’ skirts at a sports event. He goes on to make the US Olympic team for the 1936 games and, though he doesn’t win a medal, his storming final lap wins admiring reviews.

The story then goes back to the first sequence, when his plane is being shot down during the war, showing how he ends up in a rubber dinghy with two other survivors, one of whom later dies.  For 49 days, they drift on the open ocean, fending off sharks, eating raw albatross, and fighting Nature.

The final third segment finds Zamperini in a prison camp, where a fey, sadistic Japanese camp commandant shows a brutal yet strange fascination with him, subjecting him to curious partiality one moment only to switch to barbaric cruelty the next.  This is the film’s weakest chapter, perhaps because of its over familiarity from numerous Hollywood WWII prison pictures.

To her credit, it must be noted that Jolie has done her homework, watching and studying classic war and prison pictures, including David Lean’s 1957 Oscar winning epic, “The Bridge on the River Quai,” and the 1981 Best Picture, “Chariots of Fire.”

Thus, I am not surprised that “Unbroken” is dividing critics sharply.  According to the RottenTomatoes meter, the picture has received only 50 percent positive reviews.