The story of Louis Zamperini, reconstructed here by Angelina Jolie in the last year of her subject’s life with both filmmaker and inspiration in contact, the former in awe and sentimentally reverential toward the latter, is pure Oscar bait. The only question, when considering this biopic, is why it took so long. Zamperini was an Italian-American Olympic runner who was shot down during World War II, had to survive 47 days in a life raft with two other survivors in shark infested waters, one of whom died while they awaited rescue, only to be saved by, er, Imperial Japan, who promptly dispatched him and his friend to a camp where the two enjoyed the enemy’s notorious hospitality. This is a tale that’s got everything a prestige picture could want: an inspirational protagonist, almost unimaginable adversity and, thanks to the character of the unbroken man in question, a wholesome message of forgiveness to tie matters up. Why then, in Jolie’s hands, is this movie so flat?
Unbroken reminds us that it’s not what a movie’s about but how the story is told that ultimately sorts the art from the artless. Bleeding obvious, you say, but not, it seems, to Jolie, who employs a strict point and click approach to her footage – an equally uninspired editor following suit with competent, belt and braces cuts. Only in the briefest of moments does Angelina remember that this isn’t reality but the artistic presentation of the same. The shadow of a Japanese ship engulfing the two-man life raft proves that Jolie has an eye, but for most of the running time it’s fixed and minded to be utilitarian. This is a movie that closes with a Coldplay track. It’s consistent from beginning to end credits.
The movie’s timidity and lack of zeal extends to its screenplay. Audiences are typically not trusted to make thematic connections for themselves, picking up on the hints ‘n’ tips that build a nuanced picture of a complicated human being. Unbroken, like many a workmanlike biopic before it, tells its tale with hindsight, somewhat marring its authentic credentials, and employs shorthand to up the pathos in a story that manifestly didn’t require underscoring.
In one of the film’s many flashbacks we’re treated to a scene from our man’s catholic upbringing, the advice that one should “love thine enemy”. Later, a Louis victimized for his racial background, eschews the limelight, begging his brother, “let me be nothing” – a foreshadowing of the Japanese commandant’s dehumanizing tactics. You’d be inhuman if you didn’t question the veracity of this line, or didn’t wonder why the movie Zamperini lives in a clockwork universe. Then there’s the moment he’s told, pre-war naturally, “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”. Everyone, it seems, has a useful platitude for Louis and the sense he may need it in the not too distant future.
All of this would matter less if the movie had the style and urgency to make more of its audience than passive observers. It’s astonishing, given the subject matter, that both the heart and head should remain subdued throughout a retelling of one man’s extraordinary experiences. Zamperini was unbroken. Jolie’s audience is unmoved.