Unbroken is directed by one Angelina Jolie, whose work as an actor you may be familiar with. It tells the true tale of veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), a man possessed with an incredible will to survive and some astoundingly bad luck. Or rather, it tells part of his tale — the part in which, during World War II, he survived nearly two months at sea, only to be rescued by Japanese troops who promptly dumped him in a prison camp.
Unfortunately, the most compelling part of Unbroken (in theaters Dec. 25) is barely part of the movie at all. The confounding coda unfolds on title cards right before the end credits roll, letting the audience know that the events that would turn everything we just watched into a story instead of a chronicle of human endurance aren't going to make it on screen.
After all of his suffering has been dramatized, Zamperini, we're told in text on screen, went on to struggle with trauma from his experiences, until he found religion and through it, stability. He returned to Japan, trying to forgive the men who imprisoned and mistreated him, even the commander who singled him out for particular cruelty.
It's fascinating that Zamperini sought out his captors once the madness of war was over and tried to reconcile with them. That Unbroken consigns that to an afterthought, alongside some touching footage of the real Zamperini, who died earlier this year at age 97, suggests that what's really important about the man's incredible life is what he went through, rather than what he did as a result of it.
Zamperini's experiences allow Unbroken to feel like an awards movie mash-up — a little Chariots of Fire, some de-tigered Life of Pi, a helping of Bridge on the River Kwai, all glossily realized in a spare-no-expense fashion. For instance: The screenplay, based on Laura Hillenbrand's book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, was written by the goddamn Coen brothers, along with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson.
The score is by six-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat. The film is photographed by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who includes a few particularly arresting overhead shots. Rising star O'Connell, so good in Starred Up earlier this year, is joined by a handsome blur of other gaunt white guys: Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, and Luke Treadaway.
Unbroken, the third effort from Jolie as a filmmaker, feels like a direct product of her continuing efforts to burnish herself to inhuman perfection in appearance and personal life. It's beautifully made and inert, but stripped of deficiencies and earthiness, not to mention the complications of recovery and faith the movie chooses not to touch. Even Zamperini feels distant: His childhood misbehavior quickly gives way to stalwart perseverance (he embraces his brother's aphorism, "If you can take it, you can make it") and his personality is expressed mainly in the stories he tells his fellow Air Force officers about his mother's gnocchi to take their minds off starvation while they drift at sea. On screen, Zamperini comes across as a martyr rather than a person, which the film emphasizes at one point by having him struggle to lift a large wooden log, stretching out under it like Jesus, or like a less charismatic Cool Hand Luke.
Jolie's wild child days are long gone, but it's tempting to seek out the glimmers of the unpredictable woman who blew into Girl, Interrupted like a tornado and who wore once-husband Billy Bob Thornton's blood in a vial around her neck in the aspiring icon she's become. In In the Land of Blood and Honey, her flawed but interesting first scripted film, there were hints of her former self in the way she allowed the intensely fraught relationship between a Serbian soldier and the Bosniak prisoner he dated before the war to be sexy as well as imbalanced and increasingly disturbing.
In Unbroken, the frisson of the unexpected comes courtesy of Miyavi, the Japanese glam rock star who, in his acting debut, plays Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed "The Bird"), the prison camp commander who takes a special interest in Louis. Strikingly androgynous and erratically sadistic, The Bird tells Louis he sees him as a friend — "Will you congratulate me?" he asks Louis with seeming seriousness when he's given a promotion. But friendship with The Bird is no blessing, as Louis is singled out for unique humiliations and punishments, some involving the participation of his fellow captives.
Like the rest of the film, these sequences feel like a nod to another better movie, but at least in this case, it's an edgier one: the WWII drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which a POW camp captain, played by Ryuichi Sakamoto, develops a fixation on a dashing, rebellious prisoner, played by David Bowie. Unbroken tamps down the homoeroticism, but between the flickers that remain and the territory explored in In the Land of Blood and Honey, there's evidence that the movie Jolie should be directing is something like a remake of The Night Porter rather than these self-serious war sagas. It'll never happen, but here's hoping anyway. After all, the world needs a daring and distinctively female exploration of desire so much more than it needs another gleaming, hollow prestige picture, especially one that ducks all its more human drama.