Angelina Jolie’s career as an actor and celebrity activist is defined by a certain refined grace and elegance. Unsurprisingly, that same appeal trickles into her emerging career behind the camera with a pair of routine but well-intentioned war dramas: Her 2011 debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey” was an effectively downbeat chronicle of forbidden love at a Serbian prison camp in which, like the conflict itself, nobody emerged truly victorious. “Unbroken” finds a more uplifting outlet for Jolie’s tendencies with a polished, old school WWII survival story featuring Olympic champion-turned-Japanese prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, who died earlier this year.
Another commanding tale of perseverance against seemingly insurmountable odds, the movie finds Jolie flexing more sentimental muscles, resulting in a classical feel-good wartime excursion. That’s just enough to make the movie work in the confines of its formula while laying its limitations bare.
As with “Blood and Honey,” Jolie’s sophomore outing breaks no new ground, but manages to convey its real-life odyssey with a largely agreeable, celebratory tone. At over two hours, the movie’s galvanizing spirit grows weary. But Jolie keeps the narrative afloat thanks to first-rate craftsmanship, a few well-honed moments of bonafide suspense, and a terrifically restrained Jack O’Connell in the lead role. While it only hints at the sweeping epic that never fully materializes, “Unbroken” offers further proof that Jolie’s directorial instincts pass muster alongside her other talents.
The screenplay—adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson from Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 tome—tracks Zamperini from his childhood as the scrawny offspring of Italian immigrants and his triumph as a runner in the 1936 Summer Olympics through his rocky WWII endeavors. Despite the Coen brothers’ credit, there’s little in the way of the sibling filmmakers’ playful sensibilities in the by-the-books exposition, which repeatedly goes great lengths to celebrate the dedication indicated by its title.
After Zamperini’s bullied in his youth and fights back, he’s egged on by his older brother to battle forward, and his Hallmark-ready advice does the trick: “If you can take it, you can make it,” Zamperini’s told, and just like that, he’s speeding along the Olympic track to the joy of his parents back home. That same rather basic point is echoed time and again, as Zamperini survives a horrific plane crash in the Japanese sea and endures two years of persecution over the course of his imprisonment.
But while “Unbroken” offers only the simplest ideas about Zamperini’s survival tactics, Jolie keeps the pace moving well enough that it hardly matters. While “Unbroken” eventually arrives at an excessively maudlin finale, it rarely slows down to overstate Zamperini’s tribulations en route to that conclusion. An initial set of flashbacks are mercifully dropped once Zamperini and two of his fellow soldiers (Domhall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) survive a tense crash into the sea, which gives way to a masterfully enacted middle section set in the confines of a life raft over the course of 47 days.
The realist alternative to “Life of Pi,” the sequence finds the men dodging sharks and enemy warplanes while pontificating on their fate, and that’s more than enough to imbue the proceedings with mounting dread. Zamperini’s eventual capture and internment at a POW camp is a bumpier road: While the suspense and fear of torture and death lurk around every corner, the crux of the drama revolves around Zamperini’s recurring showdowns with POW camp sergeant Mutushiro Watanabe (Japanese songwriter Miyavi), who views the young man’s fame as a threat. The tension between them certainly holds some interest, but eventually grows redundant. There’s a compelling interlude involving the Japanese authorities’ attempt to get him to broadcast propaganda on their behalf (which contains echoes of the conundrum in Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater”), but once Zamperini’s back at the camp, “Unbroken” gradually loses momentum—much like the war itself.
The movie finally exacerbates its point through overstatement, with its depiction of Zamperini’s valiant ability to struggle forward amid ongoing persecution reaching Christ-like proportions by the closing act. It’s hard not to get the feeling that Jolie’s become too enamored of her subject to portray him as a human being. That perception is further hindered by a lack of sophisticated Japanese characters on par with the Americans; though Miyavi’s hardened sergeant rectifies the problem to some extent, the rest of his peers are relegated to anonymous goons.
Of course, one can’t fault “Unbroken” for keeping Zamperini in the foreground, and O’Connell’s more than up for the task. While the British actor’s performance lacks the gritty realism of his mesmerizing turn in “Starred Up,” it begs comparison with his role in another upcoming war movie that made waves on the festival circuit this year: Yann Demange’s “’71,” where O’Connell played a lone British soldier battling for survival in bombed-out Belfast. In that movie, the actor conveyed the character’s fierce survival instincts with scowls and fast reactions; here, he displays a subtler, calculated quality that holds the story together. It’s enough to cap a memorable year for his arrival on the global stage.
“Unbroken” lacks the nuances of O’Connell’s performance, but maintains a slick visual appeal on par with countless studio-mandated war stories going back to the earliest days of the genre. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins’ vibrant palette covers a lot of ground, from the stunning wide angle images of life at sea to a climactic sequence that finds the POWs silhouetted against a golden sky as the Allied forces bomb away. Prolific composer Alexandre Desplat’s jumpy score nearly matches the lively variations of his work on “The Grand Budapest Hotel” earlier this year. In short, “Unbroken” makes considerable efforts to make Zamperini’s travels retain a cinematic appeal.
Even so, there’s no getting around inevitability, and the movie’s concluding chapters register as little more than a prolonged drumroll. Jolie disposes with the arguably most distinctive chapters of Zamperini’s life in the end credits—namely, his post-war life, when he sought reconciliation with his captors and ran a marathon in Japan at the age of 80. But while the journey’s not as enthralling as its outcome, “Unbroken” doesn’t overreach, either. Positioned as a tribute to its late subject’s valor, it retains unwavering commitment to hitting that target with the same resilience as Zamperini himself.
“Unbroken” opens nationwide on December 25.