The life of Louis Zamperini is one that seemed destined for the movies. The Olympic caliber sprinter turned World War 2 pilot turned castaway at sea turned prisoner in a Japanese internment camp is the sort of story that the entire biopic concept exists to tell. In its own strange way, what is most intriguing about Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s portrait of the man during the war, is that it is the first film to examine his life. For her second stint behind the chair (the first was 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey), Jolie works from a script with some impressive pedigree, originally conceived by Richard LaGravenese (credits include The Fisher King) and William Nicholson (credits include Gladiator) and polished up by the Coen brothers (credits include everything that brings joy to the world and No Country for Old Men), and has a breakout star at its center in Jack O’Connell (who already impressed earlier in 2014 with the prison drama Starred Up). Everything seems set for this look like a winner.
O’Connell stars as Louis “Louie” Zamperini during his wartime years, throwing its audience directly into a chaotic dogfight in the middle of a bombing run in the Pacific Theater. It is a thrilling sequence, shot with an old school, sepia-tinged flair, and serves as the stepping stone into a quick tour of Zamperini’s childhood. His penchant for running away from trouble in which he found himself led to a successful and impressive high school distance running career. After a moderately successful appearance at the 1936 Olympics and on track to participate in the 1940 Games in Tokyo, Zamperini ended up in the midst of the war effort (not to mention the games were eventually cancelled due to the war), briskly bringing the film back to its present. After surviving a controlled landing/crash without landing gear, Zamperini and a handful of fellow soldiers (the most significant of which is Phil, played by Domhnall Gleeson’s impressive American accent) go out on another mission that ends in less heroic fashion, as their aircraft crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Adrift at sea for over a month, Louie and Phil are picked up by a Japanese ship and brought to separate internment camps. The rest of the film chronicles Louie’s trials amongst the POWs, wherein he is singled out for additional abuse from Mutsihiro Watanabe (known as “Bird” and portrayed by Takamasa Ishihara).
It is a good story for a film, but in practice Unbroken does not manage to capitalize on its potential. Most troubling is how undeveloped Zamperini feels throughout the film. The flashback scenes of his past do little more than to establish that he knows how to run fast, and it does set up some parallels for his time in prison, but they give practically no insight into his personality. Jack O’Connell tries his best, with his steely eyes and his infinite well of resolve, but there is always a distance between him and his audience. His struggle is mental as well as physical, and while the physical toil is a well-plumbed depth, the mental remains shrouded and out of reach. As such, the second half of the film feels more like watching a man abused and tortured than watching an indomitable spirit overcoming his captors. That happens, of course, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the resonance it should. Resonance is Unbroken’s problem, and it is a critical one.
It is odd, but in a strange way the involvement of so many talented people behind the scenes of the film manage to be more curse than blessing. Jolie is still searching for a directorial eye, and while there are some excellent sequences throughout Unbroken, other moments are unfortunately dull. Additionally, the script does not feel like the work of any of its contributors; the Coens’ voice never shines through, nor does that of LaGravenese or Nicholson. Too many cooks appear to have spoiled the broth in this case. Even the score, from stalwart (and workaholic, he’s done six scores in 2014 alone) Alexandre Desplat sounds more like a lower level composer trying to make a score that would sound like Desplat than one of his actual works. In truth, the only name among the heavy hitters who seems to be working at top efficiency is Roger Deakins, the cinematographer extraordinaire, who is certain to be nominated for an Oscar (again) and lose to Emmanuel Lubezki (again). He shoots the prison camp with a haunting quality like a living ghost town, and at least manages to make the drawn out sequence at sea gorgeous to watch. He is not the sole highlight of Unbroken, but he is definitely the greatest highlight.
Much like this year’s also disappointing The Imitation Game, Unbroken feels like a missed opportunity that stumbles out of the starting gate and never recovers. All the parts were there, but nearly all of them, save Deakins and a few of the actors (O’Connell, Gleeson and Ishihara), cannot manage to generate even a baseline of interest. It is a film that lies flat on the screen, slowly unfolding itself but never demanding attention beyond a handful of scenes. It is difficult to point out exactly what went wrong with Unbroken, and it is not a film that would be fair to be called bad, but it is also a film that never justifies its own existence. It stands inert, wholly unremarkable and disengaged, at times following biopic tropes and at times attempting to provide something new, never with any measure of legitimate success. It barely feels like a movie, really. It is just this sort of thing that is watched for a little over two hours and ends, providing nothing memorable positively or negatively. Unbroken is the film equivalent of the color beige.