O'Connell as Zamperini: Jolie makes little attempt to get inside his head.
A life story generally doesn't fit a neat dramatic arc. When you're telling the cinematic tale of a real-life person -- as Unbroken does with the tale of Louis Zamperini -- you're going to be deciding what part of a cradle-to-grave timeline is part of your narrative, and what part isn't. This is artistic license, and if you have a problem with it, then maybe you have a problem with art.
But everyone's also going to have a different threshold for what part of that life story is crucial -- what makes it a story, rather than just a series of things that happened to a particular person. And this is where Angelina Jolie's adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's book feels ill-conceived. As full of thrilling, harrowing, unbelievable actual events as it may be, it's based on a choice that just doesn't make dramatic sense.
The film opens with Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) serving as a bombardier during World War II, on a mission that costs some of the members of his plane's crew their lives. From there it flashes back to the life he left for war. Zamperini was the son of Italian immigrants in California with a pugnacious, trouble-making streak that got him in trouble but also served him well in his determined drive towards excellence as a long-distance runner and eventual medal-winner at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. And ultimately the story takes us to the hardships Zamperini endures during the war: stranded for more than a month on a raft at sea after his plane goes down, then faced with two and a half years as a prisoner of war in Japanese camps.
Everything about the pre-war segments feels purely functional, but Jolie finds her footing in the wartime sequences.
Once Zamperini is found by the Japanese, it becomes a far more conventional POW drama. There's little attempt to get inside Zamperini's head as he faces an escalating series of physical torments, and the possibility of avoiding those torments if he's willing to become a propaganda tool.
And when Zamperini returns home at the end of the war, the film loses its bearings. The film simply cuts to title cards, explaining that Zamperini suffered from years of post-traumatic stress before attempting to find peace by meeting and forgiving those who had wronged him during the war.
And that's a crucial element of Zamperini's story: His ultimate victory wasn't just about getting back to the good old U. S. of A. in one piece, but learning what it took to come out psychologically whole as well. Jolie and her screenwriting team -- talented folks like the Coen brothers, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravanese -- are clearly uninterested in that part of the story.
It's frustrating when a movie that positions itself as a "triumph of the human spirit" story isn't actually about the triumph of the human spirit. For Jolie and company, the part of Zamperini's story that's about the triumph of the human body appears to be sufficient.