UNBROKEN, director Angelina Jolie's adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling nonfiction chronicle, tells the true story of Olympic athlete Louie Zamperini, who endured an incredible series of traumas during World War II. After surviving for 47 days adrift on a raft in the Pacific, Zamperini suffered for two-and-a-half years in a brutal Japanese POW camp overseen by a sadistic warden.
Jolie begins with an astoundingly good sequence in which bombardier Zamperini and his crew—flying a jalopy B-24—barely survive an aerial shootout with Japanese fighter planes. The camera work and sound design put you right inside the lethal metal rattletrap and the surreal madness of war. It's a theme the film returns to over and over.
British actor Jack O'Connell gives an impressive performance as Zamperini. He undergoes some startling physical changes, from a buffed-out runner in the 1936 Olympics to an emaciated prisoner of war. In the lost-at-sea passages, Zamperini continually finds new depths in his resolve to survive. Tackling that shark, for instance. And in the POW camps, he discovers that he's barely scratched the surface.
The second half ofUnbrokenis very hard to stomach. It should be required viewing for anyone who thinks that torture, in any circumstance, is justifiable. Zamperini's tormentor, Sergeant Watanabe—played by Japanese musician Miyavi—is a terrifying psychotic, the madness of war personified.
Unbroken is technically proficient in nearly every way. Jolie recruited an A-list crew; the Coen brothers co-wrote the script. But despite the undeniably inspiring story, there's a curious lack of clarity about what drove this remarkable man to survive.
In a flashback sequence of Zamperini leaving home, the film delivers what seems to be its thesis statement. With a conspicuous flourish, his brother intones the parting words: "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.'' It's a shapeless sentiment, couched in swelling string music; a corny moment in the center of an otherwise steely-eyed film.
This thematic blurriness at the core of Unbroken keeps it from soaring, but it's still a hell of a story, well-told. And this is nice: Apparently, Jolie was able to show a rough cut to Zamperini before his death, in July, at age 97.
This article appeared in print with the headline "(Escape) Home for the holidays."