Unbroken is quite probably the safest movie you’ll see all awards season. It is calculated to offend no one, even while reveling in sadism and masochism (PG-13 style). It ticks every Oscar-bait, audience-pandering, prestige-picture box on the list, and follows this with insisting that the movie is as important as its subject — to criticize it is to criticize a great American hero. This is not new, of course, but Unbroken ups the ante by boldly announcing, “This is a true story,” at the film’s opening. You have to sit all the way through the ending credits to read the fine print saying, “While this picture is based upon a true story, some of the characters have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized,” which almost no one will see and is strictly there for legal reasons. So, this is a true story — more or less.
Still, Angelina Jolie has made a slick, professional piece of work and — in part because of its subject matter — one likely to be loved by a lot of people. What she has not made is a distinctive one. Nothing about Unbroken suggests that it qualifies as “an Angelina Jolie film.” If I saw it without knowing it was hers, I might as easily think it was made by Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard or Robert Zemeckis (in serious mode) or, indeed, just about any Hollywood professional out there. What’s wrong with this? Well, nothing — except the movie has no real identity and feels like it was made by a committee. I realize this doesn’t matter to a large portion of the audience — at least consciously. But if you come away from Unbroken feeling less than fulfilled, this may be why.
The film tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) — at least up through WWII, with the next 60-plus years given over to the inevitable series of “rest of the story” on-screen titles. The story is remarkable, the execution less so. Despite a screenplay by (among others) the Coen brothers, Unbroken is a basic biopic. Its only concession to being more lies in its use of flashbacks to break up the narrative, but even these are fairly traditional. The film gives us Zamperini’s story from fleet-footed juvenile delinquent to track star to Olympic star to WWII, when his bomber crashes in the ocean, leaving him and two other survivors adrift in a life raft for 47 days — before two of them are “rescued” by the Japanese. From there it mostly consists — with time out to tempt him to defect — of Zamperini being tortured by a sadistic prison commandant known as “The Bird” (Miyavi) until the war ends.
The crux of all this — aside from the muted homoerotic aspect of The Bird’s obsession with Zamperini — is that Zamperini, as the title already tells us, will remain unbroken by all this. The problem is that the film doesn’t really seem to know how to tell us what makes him survive, except through carefully seeded bromides like “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” and some safely vague nods to his growing spirituality. What the film mostly offers instead is a series of endless — and ultimately numbing — tortures, culminating in some heavy-handed Christ imagery (see the poster). Is it well made? Yes, it is. In fact, the opening sequence is a stunner, but, unfortunately, nothing afterwards lives up to that. Is it well-intentioned and heartfelt? Probably so. Is it well acted? Undeniably, but if you really want to see what Jack O’Connell can do, check out David Mackenzie’s Starred Up (2014). Is it intensely moving? Now it gets tricky. I’m sure many will find it so. To me, it’s missing something. I almost think it drowns in its own competence. If Unbroken had ever taken a risk, it could have been more than it is. As it stands, The Railway Man from earlier this year deals with similar — also fact-based — material much more effectively. Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality and for brief language.