Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” is the kind of biopic that can hardly seem to go wrong. A tale of hope and perseverance, it tells the true story of a young man, Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who becomes involved in track from a young age thanks to the insistence of his brother Pete (Alex Russell). He’s so good at it in fact that he even qualifies to go to the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. However, at the outbreak of World War II, he is called into service as a bombardier. After a mission that nearly claims the life of him and his entire crew, he is almost immediately sent on a rescue mission that results in their plane crashing in the middle of the ocean.
Louis and the two others who survive the crash are left adrift on a pair of rafts, using up their emergency supplies and then catching what they can from the ocean around them. Eventually they are picked up by a passing Japanese ship and taken to a POW camp, where Louis must undergo the cruel treatment of the camp’s commander, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). Every day Louis must struggle to survive and prove that he will not break, no matter what punishment is thrown at him, in hopes of one day returning to his family.
This is a well-intentioned tale, one that is meant to tell a very powerful story of one man’s desperate attempt to survive through one horror after another, which is indeed why it seems like it would be very hard not to do well by the material. However, what results with “Unbroken” is a biopic that comes off as very standard and flat, bringing with it very little reason for the audience to get engaged in Louis’ difficult situation.
It starts off well enough, showing us how his hopes and dreams evolve from his early involvement in running and his eventual visit to the Berlin Olympics. It even continues to be an engaging journey as we witness what he does during the war, but it’s at the point where he and his fellow survivors spend weeks on their rafts that the film feels like it comes to something of a standstill. Not that we aren’t hoping they’ll survive, but there just isn’t much to grab the audience’s attention for this longish section of the film.
Eventually we are led to think that it might get a bit of a move on when Louis is brought to his first POW camp, but this is merely where it becomes something of a bland battle of wills between him and the camp’s commander, who has a sadistic habit of beating or having others beat the poor boy. Because of this somewhat flat and standard approach, the film never truly feels like it rises to the occasion of telling this grand story, leaving us instead with an inspirational biopic that we feel like we’ve seen many times before.
The film certainly has its strengths, including being beautifully shot by 11-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (seriously, how has this man not won an Oscar yet?) and featuring some very well-done direction by Angelina Jolie, but it all gets weighed down by a very average script, which is very surprising given that it was written by the Coen Bros. (“Fargo”), William Nicholson (“Gladiator”), and Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”). In the end, it boils down to them not being able to get at what made this such a powerful story in the first place, making this a hollow biopic that is sorely missing the emotion that would make such a film work the wonders it is trying so hard to achieve. 2.5/4 stars.