“If I can take it, I can make it,” is the motto for Unbroken, this blockbustery true story from Angelina Jolie. Jack O’Connell (a serious up-and-comer of an actor) plays Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned World War II soldier turned castaway turned prisoner-of-war. And as the film’s motto would suggest, Louis certainly “takes it,” undergoing prolonged suffering first at the hands of nature and then at the hands of man.
Much of Louis’ journey is handled in a “Hollywood” manner. Jolie competently hits many of the “biopic beats,” playing it safe and keeping it relatively friendly despite dealing with very unfriendly events. Even with these safe plays and “by-the-books” execution Jolie’s passion is impossible to ignore. There’s a reverence for Louis’ story that is not only seen, but felt, aided by the always impeccable Roger Deakins who lenses the spectacular production design gorgeously. When dealing with a source such as this one experimentation isn’t always the perfect choice. Instead Jolie assembles a fantastic cast and crew to bring Louis’ story to life in a no-nonsense and straight forward manner, foregoing directorial flourishes and simply letting the man’s life speak for itself. And the “man” himself, Jack O’Connell delivers with conviction and dedication.
The entire cast brings their A-game. Domhnall Gleeson, as Louis’ friend and fellow castaway Phil, adds to the film’s spiritual and affirming core. Garrett Hedlund heads the group of smeary faced prisoners as John Fitzgerald. As the Allies begin bombing in Japan near the camp Hedlund stands with a group on the roof of the barracks, Deakins’ perfect lighting turning them into silhouettes against the bright glow of the explosions in the distance. His eyes shimmer as he delivers the news, “The Japs have a ‘kill-all’ order if the Allies win.”
As a biopic Unbroken stumbles, failing to investigate any of Louis’ characteristics outside of his determination, will, and spirituality, and including none of his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. As a simple retelling of an amazing story it succeeds, with Jolie’s unobtrusive direction allowing the events to speak for themselves. Another film in the hands of a different director studying Louis’ life after the war might be the more compelling film but Jolie’s is certainly the more uplifting.