As producer and director, Angelina Jolie takes dead aim at the Oscars with Unbroken, and there’s something to be said for the fact that her aim is true. This is a sprawling, historical period piece and she guides it with a steady, accomplished hand. To what end is another matter.
Based on the life of Louis Zamperini (played by rising star Jack O’Connell), Unbroken lightly traces his childhood years and his performance as a runner in the 1936 Olympics before focusing on his life’s two most formidable experiences: the 47 days he spent on a raft in the Pacific Ocean after his Air Force bomber crashed in World War II, and the more than two years of torture and abuse he endured after being captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war.
Jolie offers a few grace notes – I liked the inclusion of little Zamperini’s huddling sister and mother in the frame as he’s spanked by his father for disobedience – but mostly she hits the required “epic” beats for Academy consideration. And the finale, in which Zamperini performs a Samson-like feat of endurance that emotionally devastates the Japanese commander (Takamasa Ishihara) who has served as his nemesis, absolutely overdoses on staged, inspirational hokum.
To his credit, O’Connell nearly makes the moment work, largely because his performance throughout has the sort of tactile authenticity the rest of the picture lacks. As in Starred Up, in which he played a prisoner of another kind, O’Connell puts his entire body into the performance. He shivers so forcibly in the cold and wet Zamperini is forced to endure we can feel it in our own bones. In fact, O’Connell almost gives Unbroken too much. His commitment to character rather than awards consideration makes the rest of the film seem hollow in comparison.