Angelina Jolie is no stranger to films depicting harsh realities, dour drama, and world issues. She also likes to throw a huge slice of bittersweet human interest pie into the mix. But more importantly, she tries to offer examples of perseverance and fortitude in the very darkest of situations. With Unbroken, like her last film which found sparks of humanity burning against the cruelty of war, the director wants us to feel something. It’s not pleasant, but pain is definitely something we feel.
Jolie holds very little back as a story like this doesn’t quite have the impact if you, picking up on a key scene in the film, pull your punches. You have to go for it – plane crashes, being lost at sea, suffering abuse at the hands of your enemies. But there’s a supposed point to this. It’s like they say in the film, “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory“…or something like that because, unfortunately, while Jolie breezes through Louis Zamperini’s early life (prior to wartime incarceration), you may have trouble remembering anything about Unbroken aside from the brutal beatings he took from his captors.
More to that point, Jolie seems to take, to some degree, delight in drawing out and relishing in brutal scenes. Yet her decision to soft soap nothing is part of what makes Unbroken so impacting. We are living, for the better part of two half hours, Louis’ story right along with him and Jolie continually hits us where it hurts, both physically and emotionally. But while Louis was not a gung-ho soldier (he’s just an extremely strong-willed individual), the film shows more traits that made him such a remarkable man.
At the start of the film we see that Louis can keep his cool in the heat of the moment. While being peppered with enemy flack, he maintains the resolve to tend to his fellow bombardiers when their airship takes gunfire. That’s true leadership and people want to follow him. But Unbroken is not a war movie, simply a wartime movie, at least from the period of Louis’ life which Jolie decided to focus on. After being lost at sea for 47 days, he is rescued, only to be detained in a Japanese POW. The only “battle” he faces is with the deranged warden, and it ain’t pretty.
It’s a tale of survival, and it also casts a dim light on those who like to hurt people. We know that power corrupts, but aside from it chalking it up to extreme patriotism in wartime conditions, we get nothing deep or profound out of the tale. Unbroken, for all it sets out to do, comes across a bit hollow. In that regard it, at times, makes you wonder why this film feels less like an inspirational story and more like an endurance test. There’s the old adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. The picture sure does come in vibrant and clear, but it is the film’s final words which have the most resonance. Right up until the film closes, Jolie makes her point that Louis Zamperini is someone whose story is worth telling. And it is, only we just need to see more of his life.
It is not the repeated beatings, trauma, visuals and exhaustion of the sparsely happy 2 hours and 17 minutes that leave you feeling empowered by this story. It is the few snippets about his life after the end of the war which really bring gravity to what you saw. The acting is top notch, and the determination on Jack O’Connell‘s face through continuous hardship drives the message home (they also show us that he is star in the making). But despite his charismatic and engaging portrayal, the book end of Louis’ life is really what the story should have been about.
You could have an endless string of posters depicting Louis lifting a timber high above his head, in defiance and protest of his captors, and that is marginally inspiring. What brings gravitas to Jolie’s efforts telling us about this wonderful man is the twenty seconds before the credits roll. However, in retrospect, it’s not clear if the payoff was worth the set up. We should feel elated when the POWs are freed at the end of the war. Instead, we are about as deflated as the are. Again, if it weren’t for that positive text capping off the film, this might not have even been worth the trouble. How about we get a follow up story about the later years in his life? They honestly seem much more interesting.