Angelina Jolie again tackles a big, challenging story set against the horrors of war, and once again delivers a well-crafted film that fails to fire on all cylinders. Something’s missing here that would transform a powerful set of facts into a moving story.——————


Directed by Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

As with her feature debut as a director, 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie’s unbroken is a well-made film with engaging actors, a skillful and assured directorial hand, a powerful and inspiring theme … and not much power or inspiration.

unbreakable03Unbroken is the true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamparini, who survived WWII combat missions as a tail gunner, spent more than a month shipwrecked at sea on a raft, with nothing to eat or drink, and as apparently singled out for abuse in a Japanese prison camp–a brutal environment for the most anonymous inmate, much less one targeted for more than the Japanese standard of cruelty. You tell that story with good actors, you skillfully recreate the period, and you let the music swell at key moments, you should be able to break every heart in the audience, put it back together by the time the credits roll, and dump people teary-eyed and breathless onto the streets of their mundane lives.

That doesn’t happen here, and it’s not Jolie’s fault. It’s the story, or the script. The story has kicked around Hollywood longer than Jolie has been alive, so clearly there were challenges. The script includes a pass by Joel and Ethan Coen, who get first billing over two other writers each credited with a draft. Frankly, if the script doesn’t add up after the Coens have taken a pass, at least no one can blame you for skimping on the writing talent.

What kills the movie is a lack of focus, but not in the usual sense. What does it mean that Zamparini survives all this? Why does he persevere where no one (except the buddy who was with him on plane, in raft, and in camp) else could have? What held him together through all that? What did he do with the gift of life to which he so tenaciously clung? In a tale of extraordinary circumstances, I want to see an extraordinary man, and other than his sheer unwillingness to give up and die, we don’t learn what makes Zamparini so extraordinary.

unbreakable02As a boy, he’s a bit of an underachieving delinquent whom no one believes in. His older brother inspires him to become a runner, and that carries him to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. But as he suffers his wartime ordeals, we understand that he wants to be an athlete, that he loves his family and misses them, that he wants to prove himself, that he has a small degree of religious faith that seems to grow a bit. But we don’t get the thing that carries him through.

Maybe there was no “thing” for Zamparini. Maybe the crystalization of character that I’m craving would have simplified both the real man’s life and the story of the film. Maybe I’m lamenting that it’s not more of a Hollywood schmaltz-fest. But there you have it–it’s a lovely film that lacks true power, and shouldn’t.

That said, it’s fine filmmaking, behind and before the camera, and it is worthy. I hope it does well, that others find it more inspiring than I did, and that Jolie continues working behind the camera.