'Unbroken': Angelina Jolie's direction is too conventional for such a harrowing story

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

The story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete who is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, is inspirational. But it would have been even more so without making Zamperini an almost saintlike figure.

David James/Universal Pictures/AP
'Unbroken' stars Jack O'Connell.

“Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s second tour of duty as a director – her first was the estimable 2011 Serbian war drama, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” – is a movie about anguish and survival that rarely reaches the peak of passion.

Her source material is Laura Hillenbrand’s mega-bestseller about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who endured 47 days marooned on a raft when his plane was shot down over the Pacific in WWII only to be incarcerated for over two years in the most brutal of Japanese POW camps. (Screenplay credit goes to Joel and Ethan Coen, whose trademark dark wit is nowhere to be found here, as well as Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson.) His chief nemesis in the camps is a sadistic camp commandant, Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird” (Miyavi), who inflicts all manner of gruesome punishments, including, in one protracted scene, forcing a long line of inmates, one after the other, to punch Zamperini in the face. (By comparison, J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” is a puttytat).

And yet, the ordeals endured by Zamperini (who died in July at age 97) and the others seem not enough given what these men, as described in Hillenbrand’s book, actually went through. Jolie’s direction, after a slam-bang beginning involving a shot-up B-24, is too conventionally rendered for such a harrowing story. O’Connell’s performance is in the same vein: No matter how much he suffers, I couldn’t get away from the fact that 
this was an actor putting on a show. And Jolie inexplicably misses some obvious opportunities, like the moment, as described in Hillebrand’s book, when Zamperini, after running his heart out in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, meets Hitler. 

Zamperini’s life story is genuinely inspirational, but the movie seems fashioned as a standard-issue profile in courage, with Zamperini, after a troubled youth, transformed into an almost saintlike figure. He would have been every bit as inspirational, even more so, without the halo. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.)

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