Unbroken Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi. Directed by Angelina Jolie. Rated PG-13. Now playing.
Louis Zamperini must qualify for some sort of biopic bingo: He’s the son of immigrants who became an American success story; he set records as an Olympic runner; he was a World War II hero who survived 47 days lost at sea and two years as a prisoner of war; and he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching forgiveness and tolerance. As depicted in Angelina Jolie’s glossy Unbroken, Zamperini is more of a superhuman ideal than a person—and that’s the movie’s biggest flaw, since Zamperini was very much a real person, one whose life deserves a more grounded and affecting portrayal.
Unbroken focuses mainly on Zamperini’s World War II service, although after opening in the midst of an air battle over the Pacific, it flashes back to his childhood. Jolie and the four screenwriters stick to typical biopic beats, as young Louis shoplifts and gets into fights until he discovers his true passion for running (and ages 10 years or so in a single shot). Thanks to platitudes of encouragement from his older brother, Louis (Jack O’Connell) becomes first a high school running champion and then an Olympian exchanging heavy-handed foreshadowing glances with German and Japanese competitors.
After setting a new Olympic record, Louis is shipped off to war, where he bonds with his one-dimensional fellow soldiers before finding himself stranded on a life raft with two of his compatriots. He rallies his companions to survive (for a little bit, at least) and even stabs a shark in the face, all while his hair continues to look fabulous. Finally, an hour into the movie, he’s captured by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp, where he’s brutalized by a commanding officer known as “the Bird” (Japanese pop star Miyavi), but he remains, well, you know.
Jolie cranks up the oppressively rousing Alexandre Desplat score and gets some sweeping camera work from top-notch cinematographer Roger Deakins, but the movie often feels like a parody of a feel-good biopic. The Bird is the most entertaining character, but that’s because Miyavi plays him like a James Bond villain, which matches O’Connell’s superhero performance. Some of the torture scenes are intense, and it’s hard not to be astounded by what Zamperini endured (a closing title card mentions his later struggles with PTSD, but none of that makes it into the movie itself). Being astounded, however, is not the same as being moved, and Unbroken never makes the emotional connection needed to turn its protagonist from a hero into a human being.