Unbroken follows the life of decorated WWII Air Force veteran and Japanese POW camp survivor, Louie Zamperini (O’Connell). His career as an Olympian, the 47 days he spent adrift in the Pacific with no food or water after crashing while on a rescue mission, his eventual capture by the Japanese army, and the two brutal years he spent in PoW camps could each yield a separate film in their own right. In short, there’s more than enough compelling raw material here.
However, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken falls mysteriously short. While epic in scale, it lacks depth. Jack O’Connell puts in a compelling performance as Zamperini but Jolie fails to tease out the texture of his character, instead painting him as a Messianic figure capable of enduring relentless pain and torment as a PoW. At its lowest ebb, the catalogue of beatings and torture at the hands of a psychotic Japanese Sergeant veers dangerously close to Passion of the Christ territory.
Jolie’s sentimental direction is forceful rather than reflective, stiffly moving from one tribulation to another without pausing to reflect on what any of this actually means. Worse still, the film falls prey to almost all of the most grating bio-pic clichés, none of which helps us to ever really get inside Zamperini’s mind. Poignant moments are painfully signaled by a tactless score, secondary characters appear to be mere devices for the plot, and our protagonist’s vulnerabilities are never tapped. Where the film takes artistic license, it is often unnecessary, ill-judged and even outright cringe-worthy.
The film’s polished, even glib, ending does little to illuminate the complex personal struggles Zamperini faced (and sometimes succumbed to) during and in the aftermath of his internment. Zamperini suffered post-traumatic stress and depression for several years after his emancipation, but you would hardly know it based on the film’s almost throw-away conclusion. If there’s anything to be said for Unbroken, it’s that it at least highlights O’Connell’s equity as a credible leading man, but all-in-all the film lacks emotional nuance.