It’s rare for us to feel a lot of sympathy toward the struggles of A-List superstars, but it’s hard not to conclude that any review of Unbroken is going to be seen as a review of the entire career (if not life) of its director, Angelina Jolie. When your profile is as high as hers and you make a prestige film that begs to be honored as much as this one does, one has to expect there will be some comparisons made. Unfortunately for her, she has produced a film from which all such comparisons to her own persona seem inevitable, because Unbroken is a film noble in intent, beautiful to look at, and ultimately at a significant distant from its audience. It’s a film that puts a real man on a pedestal directed by a woman who has spent the better part of a decade on one herself. Ironically, given the ways in which it’s easy to draw lines connecting this project and director, in the end, it’s a film that seems to have nothing to say.
Based on the real-life story of Louis Zamperini, a World War II bombadier and former Olympian who survives a plane crash and weeks lost at sea, only to be delivered into the arms of a sadistic Japanese POW camp commander, it should have all the boxes checked off for an emotionally powerful moviegoing experience. But as harrowing as the story is (to an almost unbelievable – if it wasn’t so well documented – extent), the film never hits the emotional beats when it should or as hard as it should. There’s a constant feeling of holding back; of looking away at the most important moments, which is a problem that occurs in the editing and framing more than once. The film doesn’t seem to have anything to say about what it’s showing us. It’s simply infused with a benevolent and gentle admiration for its subject.
In a way, the story of Zamperini is almost inherently unfilmable, not only because it seems unbelievable that these events could happen to one person, but because of the ways in which certain events happens in quick succession, and certain others are dragged out.There is no way to go from WWII dogfight, to lost at sea, to POW without skipping some transitions along the way. Life, after all, does not follow a strict narrative structure, and the events depicted in this film are chaotic and without form or reason. It’s a filmmaker’s job to structure events in a biopic in order to tell a story or make a point, but Jolie was either not up to the task or unwilling to do so. We suspect it’s the latter because in many ways, not least of which is the gorgeous cinematography, she demonstrates a deftness and understanding of the medium. The film itself is heavy with seriousness and a feeling of profundity, even if it’s not necessarily earned. It seems clear to us that Jolie made this film to honor this man, and while that’s admirable on some level, she doesn’t seem to have considered the audience anywhere in her choices.
It sets up all these threads, from religion to anti-Italian bigotry to sports, and acts as if it’s going to make a point about them or tie them all together somehow to explain this person to us, but it never actually happens. Here’s a scene in church. Here’s a scene at the Olympics. If there’s a theme it seems to be embodied in the occasionally repeated “If I can take it, I can make it,” which would indicate that the film is examining, on some level, the idea of human endurance. But Jolie only takes it as far as “some people endure.” It’s akin to making a romantic movie where the major theme is “some people fall in love.” At the end of the film a title card helpfully informs us that faith and forgiveness were the major themes of the story we just watched. Unfortunately, virtually nothing of that appeared in the previous two hours. Instead, every wound and moment of suffering is grimly detailed for us, with an eerily cold precision.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the performances, most of which are so low-key and without context that virtually every character – but especially the lead, played by Jack O’Connell, are left completely unknown to the audience by the end of the film. Faces that pass through scenes. No one gives a bad performance, but no one gives a particularly noteworthy one either – and that’s very strange considering the director’s own career path.
It’s a muddled, noble, well intentioned slog of a film, full of scenes we’ve seen before, characters we’ve seen before, even shots we’ve seen before. It’s all quite beautiful to look at at points, but it never indulges in the emotional weight of what’s being portrayed and it manages to make this harrowing, hard-to-believe tale … boring. A documentary on the subject, with nothing but talking heads and photographs, would have been more emotionally engaging than this curiously undramatic dramatization – and might have had something interesting to say.
[Photo Credit: Universal Pictures]