If one learns anything from a handsomely-told World War II survival fable like Unbroken, it’s that if you are marooned at sea for weeks and then tossed into a brutal prison camp, it’s best to do so with an Olympic runner by your side. Between the elements, the sharks, and the Japanese prison guards, odds against survival are intensely lopsided. But athletes like Louis Zamperini made their careers by defying odds and redefining the possible through little more than a self-punishing sense of stubbornness. People like him seem to survive, more or less, by refusing to accept limits on their ability to withstand pain.
Zamperini’s odds-defying story was told in a bestselling book by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand. The screen version is directed with an unactorly anonymity by Angelina Jolie in her first mainstream outing (her debut as filmmaker was the 2011 indie Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey). Her film handles Zamperini with tender nervousness, as though trying to avoid offending its subject, who died at the age of 97 a few months before the film opened. It needn’t have bothered being so careful; Zamperini seems tough enough to have handled just about anything.
Not surprisingly for such a faith-based story, Unbroken starts high in the clouds. The screen is bathed in a pink sunrise gloriousness that reveals a flight of B-24s. Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the bombardier, who has to work as both medic and mechanic after Japanese Zeros blow holes in his bomber during a curt, briskly filmed combat scene that’s high on thudding adrenaline and low on whooping heroism. After, Zamperini’s crew is sent out to locate a downed plane and they have to ditch in the Pacific Ocean themselves. Zamperini and his two fellow survivors, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock) endure everything you would expect from drifting for weeks in an inflatable raft with little water and hardly any food, but also the threat of circling sharks and Japanese fighter planes.
As a director, Jolie seems to have learned a few things from Clint Eastwood, whose unfussy but sometimes simplistic approach can be felt here. It’s a film that embraces the physical, not the verbal. She threads Zamperini’s sea-drifting story with flashbacks to his growing up as a young reprobate in Torrance, California. Young Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy) is a smoking and drinking type encouraged to start running by his older brother as a way of avoiding trouble with local kids who like to beat up Zamperini while calling him “dago” and “wop.” Incredibly, Zamperini made it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a 19-year-old. The Olympics segment is kept short, triumphant, and nearly wordless, establishing Zamperini as a come-from-behind odds-defier just in time for the film to throw him into prison.
Unbroken’s shift from drifting-at-sea story to prison tale is a rough one that the film never quite recovers from. On the raft, the actors quickly establish a calm but steely bond that reverberates after they’re separated; particularly between the instantly engaging O’Connell and the often underrated Gleeson. On land, the film’s quiet manner becomes more problematic. Hurled into a teeming barracks after a period of isolation that seems even more painful for Zamperini than what he endured on the raft, he is never woven in any dramatic sense into the prison’s subterfuge society. The script’s underpopulated nature becomes particularly obvious at this stage; it’s a strange thing, given that both the highly melodramatic Richard LaGravenese and the astringently verbal Joel and Ethan Coen are credited here.
The struggle is again stripped down to the essentials, getting through alive. Unlike Zamperini’s earlier challenges, though, this one features a human obstacle. Japanese guard Mutsohiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), nicknamed “the Bird” by the prisoners (“he listens”) picks out Zamperini as a target of abuse early on and doesn’t let up. It’s an exercise in torture not unconsciously portrayed as a Christ-like journey through pain to redemption. Zamperini endures all the agony he can for the sake of his fellow prisoners and culminating in a kind of triumphant self-crucifixion.
Like most prison movies, this one steers dangerously close to falling in love with its villain and the punishment he delivers. Ishihara has a silky delicacy and a prim, swift approach to violence that is dancer-like in its elegance. The tight, immaculately framed closeups almost can’t help being ravished by his gleeful sadism. From Roger Deakins’ polished cinematography to Alexandre Desplat’s swooping score and the bright-eyed and sharp-cheekboned cast, Unbroken seems inappropriately pretty for a story of such human ugliness; even the starving, coal ash-covered prisoners look beautiful.
Jolie has a knack for picking out small details, but as a director she is captivated more by the story’s elemental sweep than its human components. In her hands, Zamperini is as impressive a figure as can be imagined. But though the film appreciates his vulnerability, showing him nearly fainting in fear at one point, the secret of his strength is never unveiled. He may as well be the Rock of Gibraltar, silent and unmovable.