You can’t blame moviegoers if they are startled by the film made by superstar Angelina Jolie, “Unbroken,” an unsparring war movie about cruelty and hardships that ultimately fail to daunt its real-life hero.
It’s not the kind of movie her fans would expect at all, but then most of them didn’t see her first film in 2011, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” You could probably fit the entire audience for that film inside the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. If you removed film critics the audience would shrink even further.
As one of those critics, I was surprised by not only her mastery of filmmaking in her first effort but her ruthlessly honest account of murder and rape in modern warfare. Shot in Bosnia and in the Bosnian and Serbian languages, the story concerned a Christian Serbian army officer encountering a Muslim woman he knew before the outbreak of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.
Jolie, a special envoy of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, has traversed the dirt roads of refugee camps and war zones trying to mediate highly complex emergency situations. Knowing the territory of war and its hardship, she brings verisimilitude as well as the courage of her convictions to her work as a filmmaker.
“Unbroken” will no doubt reach a much wider audience both in America and abroad, as World War II movies usually do. It concerns a man, who died earlier this year, whose story filmmakers have been trying to bring to the screen for decades.
Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 nonfiction bestseller, “Unbroken” — a book that no doubt jump started the stalled project — the movie chronicles the downright amazing life of Louis Zamperini, Olympic distance runner (1936 Berlin amid the Nazis’ coming out party) turned war hero. (The real life Zamperini is pictured above.)
As a bombardier during the war, he survived the crash of his B-24 bomber in the Pacific, spent 47 days adrift on a raft fighting off sharks and starvation and then endured two-and-a-half years in Japanese POW camps before being liberated by U.S. forces at the end of World War II.
Jolie’s keen interest in the story focuses on a man whose spirit could not be broken. She got to know that man well while making the film, which may have clouded her judgment somewhat.
She does miss a few moments from the story that seem odd to exclude. More problematically, she concentrates so much on the physical cruelty he endures that you don’t always grasp his means of coping with his inhumane treatment.
The movie starts with an exciting first 45 minutes where you are thrust into a bombing raid over a Japanese-hold island in the Pacific, with flack knocking the ponderous B-24 around in the sky and explosive bullets from Japanese Zeroes penetrating the aircraft, leaving gaping holes, holes that might well have been in human bodies.
The lively and resourceful English actor Jack O’Connell is playing Louis in these scenes, a youth clearly operating on sheer adrenaline yet paying close attention to the job at hand and having no time for thoughts of injury or death.
The movie then flashes back to young Louie’s life (an engaging C.J. Valleroy) in Torrance, California, where prejudice against his Italian immigrant family forced the kid into combat with school bullies.
The bomber survives a crash landing and while the crew is being given a second mission in a highly unreliable B-24, the movie fills you in on Louis’ track career, steered into the sport by elder brother Pete (first John D’Leo, then Alex Russell) to channel his energy away from fighting and delinquency.
The first missed opportunity comes during the Berlin games where Louis did in fact get a personal meeting with Hitler, who apparently admired his strong final lap. “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish,” the Führer reportedly said to him.
Once the B-24 does crash into the ocean in a spectacular sequence, the movie enters a kind of doldrums for the 47-day ordeal that sees one of the three survivors die and Louis and his buddy, pilot Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), desperately hoard rainwater, eat raw fish and birds (that sometimes sicken them) and endure strafing by a Japanese plane.
The sun bakes them to a crisp and the ennui is palpable. But this sequence could have been shortened and enlivened with more focus on the mood swings and desperation. What does come through though is Louis’ tenacious hold on life despite the seemingly hopeless situation.
Much of the second half of the movie details Louis’ mistreatment in a series of POW camps on Pacific islands and then Japan itself. His nemesis was sadistic Japanese Cpl. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird” by his prisoners.
A popular singer-songwriter, Miyavi (born Takamasa Ishihara), plays The Bird and possesses a slight frame and prettiness that underscores the driving force behind his malevolent behavior. You sense the man’s deep shame at not being on the front lines but rather overseeing enemy prisoners. As a consequence, he singles out an Olympic athlete for his gravest abuse.
The film is relentless in these depictions that culminate in showdown that allows Jolie to bequeath Louis Zamperini with Christ-like imagery. While it’s true Zamperini did embrace religion after the war in part to combat severe PTSD symptoms, nothing within the context of the film warrants such a framing.
In these final days before liberation, Jolie passes up another seemingly golden opportunity from the real account, that being the POWs witnessing in the far distance the atomic explosion that brought the war to an abrupt halt.
Despite a 137-minute running time and a screenplay by such worthies as Joel and Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson (no doubt reflecting the gestation period of this film), the film wrings little personality out of Louis’ fellow POWs.
Surrounded by a considerable cast of flatly rendered characters, O’Connell (“300: Rise of an Empire”) is a highly relatable and appealing actor. He makes you sense the steel will and firm grip on life Louis needed, along with some luck, to survive his ordeals.
The screenplay does help his portrayal in carefully laying out the advice from his brother and then fellow soldiers and POWs that bring him to the realization that the only way to “beat” his captors is to survive, to be alive when the war is over.
So “Unbroken” is a tough-minded movie from a director fascinated and perhaps obsessed with how the human spirit endures physical and mental abuse. It benefits greatly from fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins that captures so many moods and environments in Zamperini’s life and the realistic accuracy of Jon Hutman’s production design and Louise Frogley costumes.
Opens: December 25, 2014 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Jolie Pas, 3 Arts Entertainment
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadway, Alex Russell, John D’Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson
Based on the book by: Laura Hillenbrand
Producers: Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer, Erwin Stoff
Executive producers: Mick Garris, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Jon Hutman
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editors: Tim Squyres, William Goldenberg
PG-13 rating, 137 minutes