Angelina Jolie has stated that she has given up on acting and is now solely a director. If her sophomore effort Unbroken (2014) – a biopic of Olympian long distance runner and World War II POW Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) – is to be taken as evidence, it might be wise she doesn’t entirely give up on her acting career. The drama opens with a thrilling action sequence with a B-24 Bomber flying high over Japan’s island of Nauru. The plane is heavily damaged in an attack; on board is Lieutenant Zamperini, who witnesses the death of several of his crew. A few weeks later, the reassembled team is tasked with a routine rescue mission during which they are gunned down over the Pacific.
Throughout these sequences, the action shifts repeatedly back to the young Italian American’s life, growing up in Olean, New York. These moments are all by the by, run of the mill biopic material. As a rebellious youth, he steals and gets in fights. Thankfully his wiser elder brother, Pete (John D’Leo in youth, and subsequently Alex Russell) steps in to put him back on the straight and narrow. He encourages the young Louis to compete long distance running and provides trite motivational speeches. The emotional drive of these moments is there to kindle a sense of the rise to glory; hard work is demonstrated through a series of running montages that imitate Chariots Of Fire (1981), all of which adds up to be surprisingly dull. It’s a shame as a film charting Zamperini’s life has been in the works since the 1950s.
Through a series of rewrites, and false starts, what has emerged looks great – on paper. First there is the material, a life of fame, glory, suffering, and triumph. Then there is the new script provided by the Coen Brothers (by way of Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson); a host of bright, young talent that includes Domhnall Gleeson and Garret Hedlund; Roger Deakins shooting it ensures its likely to be visually stunning. However, as we have already seen with Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man (2013), great material doesn’t necessarily equate with great films, especially if that material is in the wrong hands. Jolie has been provided with a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate her skill, yet the result is a ham-fisted, hodge-podge ensemble of scenes about suffering and little else, forgetting about character development or narrative arc. There are moments that make for more palatable watching, such as when Zamperini, along with two other crew members, are stranded at sea. It is then that Jolie seems to get into her stride.
These moments are reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), and we see the crew’s gradual physical and mental demise, including Gleeson, who is painfully thin for the role, providing a standout performance. However, this moment is quickly ruined by the presence of a laughable computer-generated pelican that will just induce laughter in a moment of peril. The following scenes in the Japanese POW camp, where the Allied troops are governed over by the preening bully Watanabe (J-Pop star Miyavi) are a tirade of one-note odes to suffering, showing little of how Zamperini actually managed to survive. With Unbroken, Jolie fails to captures Zamperini’s life, and she focuses too much of what he endured and how he survived such suffering, crafting a lacklustre and dull film about an incredibly remarkable man.