Unbroken is a noble attempt by Angelina Jolie, who produced and directed the film, to bring to the big screen the 2010 biography by Laura Hillenbrand ‘Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.’ Not without merit, the film, whose screenplay was written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, misses the mark.
Unbroken is the unbelievable yet true tale of the USA Olympian athlete Louis "Louie" Zamperini, who passed away on July 2, 2014, at the age of 97. Zamperini’s life is like a book in which each and every chapter is more incredible than its previous. From a childhood that spells a future as a career criminal, young Zamperini, under his older brother’s encouragement, launches himself into a record-breaking stint as a track athlete, landing him at the 1936 Olympics. WWII finds Zamperini serving as a bombardier at the Pacific front. When his plane crash-lands in the ocean, Zamperini survives a record time of 47 days atop a raft, only to be captured by the Japanese and be sent to a series of POW camps, where he suffers torture and abuse. Surviving the camps, Zamperini returns to the USA at the end of the war suffering from severe PTSD, resulting, among other issues, in alcoholism. Like many other veterans, his story could have ended here but it did not. The next chapter finds Zamperini back in Japan, on a search that started with a wish for revenge but ends up with forgiveness. Added to this mix is Zamperini’s transformation into an outspoken evangelistic Christian. It is a fantastic story, one that cannot be compacted into 2 hours of film.
What made the book compelling is the level of details, allowing the reader to get to know Zamperini and appreciate his trials, transformation and endurance. It is something that the film fails to capture.
In trying to understand why this well-intended production falls short, as no doubt Jolie was captivated by the character and wanted to do it justice, I looked at two other movies. The first is the 2012 Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That film was partially based on the 944 pages book by Doris Kearns Goodwin; thus it is similar in terms of the challenge of taking a thick book and adapting it to film. Spielberg, wisely, realized he would never be able to bring the full story to the screen, thus he chose to nibble at it and pick a portion that shed the most light on the character. Jolie and her team of notable screenwriters realized this as well and focused most of the screen-time on Zamperini’s POW period. Still, the film feels more like a sketch than a portrait.
The other movie that came to mind is The Hunger Games, in particular the first installment. I remember not enjoying the film that much, and later, when I had a chance to read the book, finding that I enjoyed the written version much more. Yet, I recall watching the film and being captivated by Jennifer Lawrence, who brought so much energy to the role, that she made the character burst out of the screen despite other issues the movie had. That, unfortunately, did not happen with Unbroken. Jack O'Connell, who plays Zamperini, is anything but an indecent actor, but the spark is simply not there.
Unbroken is not a bad movie. Many film critics wrote it off as "conventional," and conventional it is, which is not what one expects from such an unconventional life-story.