Louis Zamperini’s life story is one of the few “this is so amazing it’s hard to believe this is true” real life stories that filmmakers have not used up. There have been documentaries and TV movies about Zamperini, but it is world famous actress Angelina Jolie that has delivered our first true cinematic depiction of Louis Zamperini. While the film she has crafted in Unbroken isn’t as stunning or unique as Zamperini’s life, Jolie delivers a film that feels like a Hollywood epic of old. It certainly isn’t a flawless film, but there is a majesty to it that is able to give Zamperini his due on film.
The film picks up with Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) on a bombing mission in World War II. It flashes back and forth between his earlier life and his trials during the war including his survival at sea and his stay at a series of Japanese concentration camps. The World War II storyline is where this film excels as it appears that it is where Angelina Jolie and her crew of screenwriters (who include the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) have the most interest in. This part of the film is gripping, intense and truly cinematic, and all of it is carried by Jack O’Connell in a monumental breakthrough performance. You can’t really blame Jolie and company for allowing these segments to get a bit repetitive because they just work so well.
The main problem with the film is its implementation of the flashbacks. Fortunately, most of them take place early on in the film, but the film takes a while to get going because of this. The boyhood flashbacks feel completely misplaced and completely uninteresting. Meanwhile, the flashbacks to Zamperini’s time at the Olympics feel shortchanged. They go by really quickly and we are never given much reason for why they were included in the particular storyline that this film used.
Ultimately, Unbroken comes across as some of the better “Oscar-bait” to come out this year. The film doesn’t break any new ground, but Jolie’s direction and O’Connell’s performance make it seem like they are really trying to honor Zamperini, which gives the film a sense of integrity. It is also nice to see that the film does take some risks, especially in the brutality that is put on display. Miyavi does a great job of bringing this to the film as a Japanese concentration camp commander. So Unbroken is a film that is better than its faults.