Whatever else Angelina Jolie has been doing in her busy personal, professional and activist life, we can be sure she wasn’t spending it watching World War II prisoner-of-war movies.
“Unbroken,” her film of Laura “Seabiscuit” Hillenbrand’s book about ex-Olympian Louis Zamperini’s true-life survivor story, stumbles into most every movie of the genre in ways that suggest she hasn’t figured out how these things work. Suspense and pathos evade her as she turns an admittedly unwieldy biography into a dull, perfunctory and truncated film.
Sure, it’s a “true story,” which adds weight. Zamperini really did survive the ditching of his bomber in the Pacific, only to endure torture and starvation in Japanese camps. But if we’ve seen the beatings, the maddening stretches of solitary confinement, the war of wills between the stoic serviceman and the sado-homosexual Japanese camp commander in one film, we’ve seen it in five – pretty much every film from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” to last year’s “The Railway Man.”
So “Unbroken” relies on the novelty of Zamperini’s foe tracing past, quick flashback sketches of the way he found his intense focus in his childhood thanks to running. The film too-obviously tells us about the faith and aphorisms – “If you can take it, you can make it” – he claims got him through his ordeals, most uncinematically.
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Jack O’Connell, of “300: Rise of an Empire,” plays Zamperini once he’s old enough to race and reach the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A runner whose event was the 5,000 meters race, Berlin only set the stage for what was sure to be his moment of glory – at the 1940 Olympics, in Tokyo. But that one was canceled by World War II.
Instead, we ride along in Zamperini’s B-24 – the quietest and cleanest (and most digital) B-24 ever – as he (the bombardier) directs it over the target. Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) is the pilot who gets them home, even after they’ve been shot up. But one mission he doesn’t, and he, Zamperini and a crewmate (Finn Wittrock) are stuck in a raft for weeks and weeks. Little water, raw fish to eat, blistering sun, sharks and strafing by Japanese aircraft are not where their problems end.
Captured and shipped to Japan, Zamperini is dogged by a fiendishly cruel Watanabe, aka “The Bird,” given a prissy/sadistic delicacy by Takamasa Ishihara.
“Don’t LOOK at me,” he coos. If you do, he canes you. If you don’t, he canes you. And he loves –in a perverse, leering way –caning Zamperini.
Jolie’s best contributions to the genre are a few early imprisonment scenes that capture the myopia of men unable to see beyond the crack in the bottom of their cell door, or only through a loose corner of a blindfold.
But every time we’re meant to fear that a summary execution is nigh, Jolie blows the build up. Every moment of Zamperini’s silent (no Bruce Willis wisecracks for this hero) struggle against The Bird, rooted on by his fellow POWs (Garrett Hedlund plays the senior officer), fails to ignite.
The performances, save for Ishihara’s, are colorless. Even the formidable young Gleeson fails to make much of an impression.
Jolie, with four credit screenwriters, Oscar winners among them – ends this real history so abruptly that whatever moral her story was aiming for has to be dealt with in the closing titles. And whatever the virtues of her directing debut, the Balkan tragedy “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” she’s into “Well, there’s always Maleficent II” territory here.