When Angelina Jolie got the job directing “Unbroken,” the new film about Louie Zamperini and his WWII experience, she immediately started hiring the very best people she could possibly hire. Roger Deakins is her photographer. The score is by Alexandre Desplat. William Goldenberg and Tim Squyres cut it. Designed by Jon Hutman. And the list of screenwriters who share final credit for adapting the book by Laura “Seabiscuit” Hillenbrand? Amazing. A murderer's row. Joel and Ethan Coen. Richard LaGravenese. William Nicholson. Nuclear force talent.
Here's where I tell you that I have not read Hillenbrand's book, nor was I especially familiar with Zamperini's story before I sat down in the theater yesterday. Anything I write, I'm writing about the film and the way his story is presented here, not about the real guy, who evidently touched a lot of lives. I want to be clear about that because it always feels like a tricky line to walk when you're talking about based-on-a-true-story movies. When I look at the collaborators that Jolie put together or I read any interview she's given about the film, her passion for the material is clear, and she seems to genuinely adore Zamperini. No doubt about it.
But as a film, “Unbroken” feels to me like this beautiful container that's been created to hold something utterly mundane, and I feel bad that I feel that way. After all, Zamperini was an Olympic athlete who survived over a month lost at sea only to end up in a Japanese prison camp run by a sadist. He survived something so tremendous that I can't imagine it, and the film seems to be celebrating that survivor's spirit that he had. The problem is that there's nothing about the story presented here that makes the case for why Louie's survival is any more special than, say, anyone else who made it through that same prison camp alive. There's a lovely little coda at the end of the film that shows the real Louie Zamperini in Japan in his 80s, and I'll admit… it affected me. It's a very moving image. But there's nothing in this film that makes the case for why Zamperini's struggle and survival are special, and that seems like a very odd thing for this movie to be missing.
Let's be clear, too, this thing is beautifully crafted. The photography by Deakins is powerful and evocative and burnished in gold. It's a delight to look at, even in the film's bleaker moments. It's a lovely Desplat score, and I think the cast is above reproach. Jack O'Connell gives a tremendously dedicated performance, and the hell he must have put his body through pays off in a transformation that is startling over the course of the movie. The film jumps around in time, but it's primarily concerned with what happened to Zamperini in World War II.
What the film accomplishes without any question is putting the audience in Zamperini's shoes. It's very experiential. There's a long chunk of the movie about what happens when Zamperini's plane goes down in the Pacific, and only three of the men survive. Russell Philips (Domhnall Gleeson), 'Mac' McNamara (Finn Wittrock), and Zamperini all end up sharing two life rafts and whatever limited rations they have, and it's an endurance test. All of it is really expertly evoked. And once things shift to a prison camp in Japan, it's once again very well-made. But I've seen both of these things before. I am impressed that anyone could live through what we see these people endure, but there's nothing in the film that makes Zamperini's survival special or different. To some degree, I'm left wondering what it is about him that inspires all of this effort, all of this impeccable craft, and if the film doesn't communicate what it was that got Jolie so eager to tell the story in the first place, then shouldn't that count in some way as a failure?
It is uplift by artifice. The biggest moment in the film, the big battle of wills between Zamperini and his primary tormenter, “The Bird,” is an empty gesture, a “fuck you” without any real punch. We've seen these movies, these showdowns, and the archetype of the rebel who refuses to be bent by the oppressor is a powerful one. There is a purpose to the stubborn revolution of the Cooler King, and his example leads others to resistance. Zamperini's struggle here is more one of base-line survival than anything else, and while I would never disparage the strength it takes to endure something like this, I don't think that's automatically why you make a movie about someone.
I have a feeling that the sheer polish that's been applied here will be enough for some people. I can't get over how it looks and feels like a genuinely important film, but how much it feels like some key piece is missing. I'm having such a divided reaction to the film that I almost want to see it again. There are so many small details that work (there's one moment involving a shark that I thought was particularly cool) that I think Jolie is a director worth watching. But when it comes to this particular story, I find myself unconvinced in the end. “Unbroken” looks like the real thing, but evaporates upon closer scrutiny.
“Unbroken” is in theaters everywhere Christmas Day.