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Angelina Jolie’s UNBROKEN Misses the Point – Movie Review

By now, most everyone in America should be aware of Louie Zamperini, the former Olympic athlete and bombardier during World War II. Universal’s overly sentimental ad campaign has been everywhere, from the Olympics all the way to commercials with director Angelina Jolie and even Zamperini himself talking about Unbroken, and with good reason. His story is one of the most amazing to come out of the twentieth century.

Unbroken

Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up a trouble maker in Torrance, California. Seeing the dark park he was heading down, his big brother makes him join the track team. The young Louie has a knack for running, and before long he’s breaking records all over the place. At the age of 19, he even qualifies for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Zamperini doesn’t medal, but he expects that to change in the 1940 Tokyo games. Once war breaks out, those Olympics are cancelled, and Zamperini enlists as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater. 

Based on Laura Hillenbrand‘s fantastic book, Unbroken, just like her previous book, Seabiscuit (the author met Zamperini while working on that book) was ripe for a theatrical adaption. The twists and turns Zamperini’s life took couldn’t have been thought of by the best writers out there. All a filmmaker had to do was stay faithful to the source material and all kinds of praise would be heaped upon them.

Unbroken

And therein lies the problem with Jolie’s Unbroken. She focuses on Louie’s 47 days stranded at sea after his bomber went down and the struggle to survive POW camps after his rescue. Those are huge portions of what makes Zamperini’s life so unbelievable, but that’s not what made his story so powerful. It wasn’t just that he was in the Olympics and went through hell in Japanese POW camps. It’s what happened after, and the film relegates that all-important portion of Zamperini’s story to a few title cards, completely undercutting everything he endured up to that point.

With that one simple decision, Jolie has cut her own film off at the knees. Instead of showing the emotional impact of that journey, she opts for a style of “Hey, look how bad Louie is being beaten, yet he keeps getting up. He’s so brave.” That’s fine and all, but what’s the point? Even with the Coen Brothers helping write the script, Unbroken glosses over so many little things that would’ve added some much needed depth. Some are inserted in throwaway lines that feel forced, while others are discarded all together. With no third act on top of it, Unbroken simply glosses over Zamperini’s experience point by point, instead of digging deep into the emotional effects of his journey.

Unbroken

Jack O’Connell was hand-picked by Jolie to play Zamperini after seeing him in the prison drama Starred Up. The actor is more than suited for the part, but without the emotional resolution of such an ordeal, the only thing we’re left with is the notion that O’Connell sure knows how to get beat with a bamboo stick.

It’s difficult to divorce Unbroken the film from Unbroken the book, especially because they’re both based on the same story. Jolie is an adequate director, but with so much amazing material to work with, spending an hour watching Zamperini get beaten with a stick in a POW camp takes on a hollow feeling for anyone knowing it’s what happened after the war that made Zamperini so compelling.

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The Author

Ryan Hill

Ryan Hill

Ryan Hill used to spend his time writing screenplays into a notebook instead of doing homework. That love of film and all things storytelling led him to spend most of his time writing. He's been a film critic in North Carolina for over five years, and his debut novel, THE BOOK OF BART, is out now. Please buy it. Ryan also feels odd about referring to himself in the third person.