Review: 'Unbroken'

Grueling doesn't always equal gripping, as proven by Angelina Jolie's biopic of WWII POW Louis Zamperini.

Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 nonfiction account "Unbroken" introduced millions to Louis Zamperini, the Italian-American who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, in World War II, became an Army Air Corps bombardier flying missions over the South Pacific. In 1943 Zamperini was aboard a rickety B-24 aircraft, the "Green Hornet," when it crashed in the water. He and two other survivors, "Phil" Phillips and "Mac" McNamara, survived 33 days on a life raft, contending with Japanese bomber strafings and killer sharks.

McNamara didn't make it to day 34, but Zamperini and Phillips eked out two more weeks at sea, only to be captured by the enemy. Then, until the end of the war, Zamperini was tortured by his captors, chiefly the Japanese prison commander known as "The Bird" (played by Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi).

Hillenbrand's title, which is also the title of director Angelina Jolie's film version, indicates a hard-won triumph. Zamperini survived these ordeals and lived to age 97. Jolie's version of the story, solidly crafted if slightly hollow, comes from a script by Joel and Ethan Coen based on earlier drafts by Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Jack O'Connell gives his all as Zamperini. (In the forthcoming, and excellent, Belfast, Ireland-set film "'71," O'Connell plays another military man in a life-and-death nightmare.)

"Unbroken" makes for a grueling experience, which is not quite the same as a memorable one. Jolie's previous directorial effort, the Bosnian War drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey," announced a filmmaker of moral seriousness as well as technical prowess. Both are fully on view in "Unbroken," but there's something aggressively Hollywood-y about it. For better or worse, Jolie — who worked with Clint Eastwood as his leading actress in "Changeling" — favors director Eastwood's style of square, on-the-nose and visually uncomplicated storytelling. The courage and swagger under fire in "Unbroken" seems more like the movies than real life.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, among the best in the world, treats each new shot as an improbably pretty picture, the lighting just so, the shadows and silhouettes beautiful, even when the circumstances are grim beyond measure. It's the same with the music: Composer Alexandre Desplat's orchestral flourishes have a way of distancing and falsifying Zamperini's ordeal. When Mac (Finn Wittrock) receives his burial at sea, it's strange to be thinking about other matters, such as how much more effective the scene might be without mood music behind it.

I wonder if Jolie's formidable, often fearsomely intense work as an actress has affected her way of seeing and framing other people's stories. Often in "Unbroken," the camera glides in slowly, in mythic mode, while O'Connell holds a pose, unblinking, stalwart, unbroken. Zamperini is less a dimensional character in the film than he is a superhuman lesson in affirmation against all odds. Zamperini's postwar ordeal, his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, his relationship to religion: All that messy, complex business is handled abruptly in a few quick title cards just before the end credits. Rightly, Jolie didn't want to tell the man's entire life story. But as is, at too-convenient dramatic junctures, the screenplay darts back into flashbacks of Zamperini's childhood or young adulthood, when we should really be sticking with the crisis at hand.

"Unbroken" - 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for war violence, including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language)

Running time: 2:17

Opens: Thursday

mjphillips@tribune.com

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