Disappointment” is too harsh a word for “Unbroken,” the glossy, well-made, curiously remote movie that Angelina Jolie has made from Louis Zamperini’s life. A simple “less” may be more appropriate, and it has more to do with our expectations — how dearly readers loved Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography of Zamperini, how hyped the film version has been, how regally yet intimately its director, Angelina Jolie, has been working the media for months — than it relates to the broad canvas of the movie itself. “Unbroken” stirs a moviegoer by default; it’s an astounding story of human endurance that has been brought a little too safely to the screen.
Zamperini, who died this past July at 97 (he lived to see an early cut of the film), was the rough-and-ready son of Italian immigrants in Torrance, Calif., and “Unbroken” dramatizes the bigotry the boy (C.J. Valleroy) faced and the rebelliousness with which he responded. What kept him from the streets was an older brother (John D’Leo in the early scenes, Alex Russell later) who coaxed him to run track; in an edit you see coming a mile off, the child Louis sprints into adulthood, where he’s played by Jack O’Connell.
At 19, Zamperini ended up at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which Jolie stages with pomp, an eye for historical detail, and an ear cocked for the war waiting in the wings. I won’t spoil what happened there, but the movie turns a qualified triumph into a full-on cinematic one. Enlisting in the Army Air Force in 1941, Zamperini was marooned at sea when his plane experienced mechanical failure during a rescue mission; he and Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson, quietly excellent) survived for 47 days in a life raft. Captured by the Japanese, he then spent two years in a series of brutal POW camps. It is quite a life, or half of one.
By far the strongest, most dramatically compelling sections of “Unbroken” deal with Zamperini’s ordeal at sea and the events leading up to it. Jolie puts us right in the cockpits of those B-24 bombers and illustrates the men’s beleaguered camaraderie in the face of enemy danger and Allied bureaucracy. A third castaway, Francis “Mac” McNamara (Garrett Hedlund), is weaker than the other two, both physically and spiritually, and we’re invited to speculate on the qualities that differentiate those who endure and those who don’t. Sharks circle, the sun pounds down, and the movie catches the insignificance of their plight without once cutting to a shot of a tiny raft in a vast sea. On the contrary, we feel as close to their agony as our comfortable lives allow.
When “Unbroken” comes to land once more, though, and Zamperini is separated from Phillips and taken to first the Ofuna and then the Omori prison camps, the film settles into more than an hour of privation and abuse that lacks the immediacy of the ocean sequences. What happens to Zamperini is horrible, most of it at the hands of camp commander Sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. “The Bird.” He’s played by the Japanese rock musician Miyavi (real name Takamasa Ishihara) as a silky psycho-sadist, one minute cooing odd endearments in the hero’s ear, the next beating him bloody with the bamboo stick he carries everywhere.
Without diminishing the particulars of what Zamperini experienced or his struggles to stay alive, “Unbroken” settles into a rut of painstaking, impersonal craft. The brutalities blend into one another, and the film only catches its breath when Zamperini is briefly taken to Tokyo for a radio propaganda broadcast. In the scene that follows, The Bird lines up all the POWs in camp to punch the hero in the face, and the audience may be feeling they’re getting the same treatment by then. That’s as it should be, yet still the events seem to be taking place on the other side of a piece of glass.
It’s hard to put a finger on why “Unbroken” doesn’t connect the way it should. Is it that O’Connell, an up-and-coming British talent, doesn’t yet have the dynamism to hold the center of an epic? (See this year’s gritty jailhouse drama “Starred Up” if you want a better idea of what the actor can do.) Is it because the screenplay got caught between the big-screen emotionalism of Richard LaGravenese (“P.S. I Love You”) and William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) and the tartness of the Coen brothers? Because we’ve watched too many POW movies and this one never breaks through the conventions to breathe on its own?
Or is it because its maker is a child of Hollywood and now one of its royalty, so that “Unbroken” is, on the surface, everything a well-appointed movie based on this remarkable life should be — except surprising, individualistic, and fired with personal and artistic passion. Between Hillenbrand, Jolie, the studio marketing machine, and the media coverage of Zamperini’s passing, we may have been sold “Unbroken” too well, become too familiar with the tale. A great story has become merely a good film, and we’re left with a souvenir that reminds us of the man it commemorates without truly bringing him back to life.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly spelt Laura Hillenbrand’s first name.