"Unbroken" is a story about Louis Zamperini that seems to have little interest in Louis Zamperini.
The film painstakingly details his harrowing wartime experience and every brutal assault against his person. But don't expect to walk away with a deep understanding of the Olympic athlete who survived not only 47 days in a raft in the middle of the Pacific but also two years as a POW in a Japanese detention camp. "Unbroken" floats on the surface.
And it's fine. "Unbroken" isn't a bad movie; it's just safe to a fault.
Director Angelina Jolie has made a beautiful film based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book. Her respect for Zamperini's story is evident from the start. By the end, though, the gaze turns reverential and distant as his experiences become more foreign and obscured.
"Unbroken" kicks off with a bang. A gorgeous air battle places the audience in the middle of World War II, not caring to introduce you to the boys in the B-24 bomber. In fact, Jack O'Connell is such a newcomer and looks so different in this film with his distractingly jet black hair that the first few minutes are a little disorienting as you try to figure out just who is the star of the movie. That's a strange handicap when you cast an unknown.
From there, the film fades in and out of flashbacks to Zamperini's Torrance, California, childhood and his unlikely ascent to athletic greatness. There, in "Godfather" sepia, we see a very young Zamperini smoking, drinking, looking up girls' skirts and not paying attention at church. But his brother pushes him to focus, and soon enough, his family realizes they've got a star on their hands.
Zamperini, before enlisting in the Air Force to fight in the war, was a track star who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Though fairly straightforward, his racing scenes are among the most exciting of the movie. He's a guy who saves his best for the final moments. It's immediate and thrilling.
The wartime "present," however, has the feel of a lengthy montage, especially when Zamperini and his fellow mates are stranded after their plane crashes in the Pacific. He and two crewmates survived on a raft at sea for 47 days, only to be captured by the Japanese and put into a brutal prisoner-of-war camp.
Early on in the first ordeal, we get a glimpse of Zamperini's selfless leadership as he tries to calm a panicked peer and tend to a wounded other, but it's fleeting.
Then it becomes a series of moments - flashes of misery on a boat as we peek in on the men in various stages of decay. It strips the experience of any arc or thrill. Jolie even plops us down in the middle of a violent storm. This should be electrifying to watch and experience along with Zamperini. Instead, she shows him bobbing up and down in the black waves, making a plea with God to get him out alive. For such a high stakes scene, it's oddly lifeless.
There's also a missed opportunity for an emotional gut punch when Zamperini is separated from his friend. It seems like Jolie was possibly aiming for subtlety here. Instead, we just feel robbed.
When he gets to the POW camp, we're introduced to a sadistic prison guard (played by Japanese rock star Miyavi) whose sole purpose seems to be to beat Zamperini at every possible moment. But again, without any inquiry into what inspired Zamperini to endure, the endless brutality falls flat.
O'Connell's performance is strong and steadfast with moments of greatness and deep vulnerability, but it fails to inspire an emotional response from the audience.
Jolie hasn't done a disservice to Zamperini's life, but it's hard to know what she was trying to tell. It's Zamperini's story in fact and circumstance, but somehow, he feels like an enigma.