It’s been a year of big biopics. From scientists Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing to artists J.M.W. Turner and Margaret Keane to the one and only Martin Luther King, Jr., the storied lives and times of extraordinary men and women have paraded across our screens. Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” is one of the latest in this cavalcade, and like a few of its predecessors, falls short in the same, lamentably predictable way.
Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s incredible recounting of the same name, “Unbroken” traces the life of Louie Zamperini, Italian-American, Olympian, bombardier, prisoner of war. No movie can effectively fold a person’s life within its two hours, let alone one as extraordinary as this, but “Unbroken” follows Louie from his childhood home, where he’s saved from other boys by policemen chasing him for stealing, all the way through the end of World War II. Worried that Louie will end up in prison, his track star brother finds an outlet for the young tramp’s boundless energy: running. Soon, young Louie is tearing local records to shreds and sent packing to Berlin to compete in Hitler’s infamous Olympics. He breaks a record, but doesn’t win a medal, since Berlin is just a warm-up for Tokyo, 1940. As it turns out, Louie never gets to go, but he does end up in Tokyo a few years later—as a prisoner of war.
The movie is at its best in the earlier sections, carried forward by the adrenaline of Louie’s running career, air combat, and his dramatic plane crash. But what Jolie fails to understand is that showing a series of extraordinary events in an individual’s life is not the key to a great biopic. The appeal lies in the individual. Louie’s story is gripping, but there’s very little Louie in it. We see his suffering, but not his spirit. We understand very little about him—who he is, the aspects of his character that allow him to endure so much, how he copes with his ordeal. At most, it seems to be the thought of his mother’s gnocchi that keeps him going.
The movie hints at these complexities in its strongest section, when Louie’s plane crashes into the ocean and he and two others are stranded in a raft on the Pacific for 47 days. It’s a physical and mental struggle to survive the sun, starvation, thirst, sharks, and despair, and the men attack sharks for food and play games to stay mentally fit. Louie’s resourcefulness, humor, and resilience wiggle through here, as he refuses to accept defeat, reacts quickly to situations, and keeps both himself and his friends going.
Jack O’Connell, unknown in this country, is excellent as Louie, as is Domhnall Gleeson as his friend and fellow survivor. (After all, it takes talent to make lines like, “If I can take it, I can make it” feel genuine.) “Unbroken” is also a beautiful movie to watch, thanks to cinematography by Roger Deakins. Jolie has clearly done her research here; her Berlin Olympics echo the eerie pomp of Leni Riefenstahl, but the POW camp scenes are too reminiscent of “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The sadistic, homoerotic relationship that develops between Louie and his vicious torturer, camp commander Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, lies at the heart of the movie, but Jolie holds back from exploring the complicated tensions and impulses beneath the brutal beatings and targeted attacks—much to the movie’s detriment.
Louie Zamperini’s enthralling story is enough to keep “Unbroken” going, but it’s another missed opportunity to bring an incredible individual to life. Louie’s ordeal is unforgettable, but Louie himself is forgotten in it. The movie celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, but it doesn’t adequately capture that spirit, and in so doing, does a disservice to the story, the actors, and Louie Zamperini himself.