The Angelina Jolie-directed World War II drama “Unbroken” tells a very human story.
Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a former high school track star and Olympic athlete, joins the U.S. Army Air Corps and becomes a bombardier in the Pacific. Later, Zamperini, played by British actor Jack O’Connell, is one of only three crew members who survive their plane’s crash into the ocean. The others are Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock).
Zamperini’s survival marathon begins with the crash and continues with 47 days adrift at sea. It quickly becomes clear that Zamperini, unlike the woeful Mac, commands the will to endure.
Zamperini must call upon that strength during more than two years of testing and suffering in prisoner of war camps. Peers who don’t have such strength won’t make it.
What Zamperini demonstrates in “Unbroken” isn’t conventional Hollywood movie heroism. This is not a movie about great escapes and epic battles. It’s about living as best as one can, despite the brutal, oppressive conditions to which Zamperini and his fellow POWs are subjected.
But “Unbroken” — earnest, well-acted and technically well-done drama — and its realistic portrayal of the cruelty the Allies experience fails to inspire. Zamperini perseveres, but the film is more a record of suffering than a depiction of courage.
Japanese musician and first-time actor Miyavi plays Zamperini’s tormentor, prison guard Cpl. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka The Bird.
“You are enemies of Japan,” Watanabe tells his new prisoners. “You will be treated accordingly.”
In a camp full of prisoners, Zamperini becomes Watanabe’s preferred target. Without provocation, Watanabe beats him with his ever-present kendo stick, a bamboo weapon used in martial arts.
Zamperini and Watanabe form the primary relationship in “Unbroken.” For all of the psychological drama between captor and captive that the filmmakers may want to impart, the movie’s beating and humiliation scenes simply look like torture and sadism.
Flashbacks to Zamperini’s troubled childhood in Torrance, California, attempt to explain his strength. His immigrant Italian parents worry about their troublemaking son. Zamperini’s big brother, Pete (Alex Russell), steps in to put little brother on a better track.
“If you can take it, you can make it,” Pete says. “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”
Pete’s platitudes, Zamperini’s high-school track stardom and his vaguely depicted participation in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany are a few more story elements that don’t convincingly explain the hows and whys of his endurance. Nor do the track-related scenes seem cause for celebration.
Billed as an epic drama about an incredible life, “Unbroken” is a story about surviving incredible odds. It is not a vehicle for inspiration or revelations.