Among Angelina Jolie’s unmistakable attributes is her empathy—her ardent drive to understand the experience of the other. It’s telling that her 2011 directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, was populated with international unknown actors and told in Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian languages, so as to embed the audience as deeply as possible into the characters’ ordeals. That same hunger to think outside of herself and her white Hollywood sphere is what anchors Jolie’s sophomore effort, Unbroken, an account of the Job-like tribulations of Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force who barely scraped his way out of World War II. Ostensibly trumpeting the astonishing stamina of the American soldier, specifically when tasked to survive in Japanese POW camps, Unbroken has all the ingredients of a chest-puffing piece on Yankee military superiority, with paranoid fingers pointed at the exotic, one-dimensional opponent. But Argo or Lone Survivor this is not.
As opposed to painting its non-U.S. characters as subhuman “enemies,” Unbroken treads very carefully with the concept, even putting the first utterance of the word into the mouth of a priest, who, in Louie’s flashback to childhood mass, recites, “love thine enemy.” It’s a slightly trite bit of viewer hand-holding, as are most of the recollections that punctuate Louie’s harrowing wartime horrors, but it sets the tone for a film less interested in blame than in illuminating commonalities. Adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson from Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken deliberately zeroes in on the discrimination Louie and his family suffered as Italian-American immigrants in the early 20th century, a cruelty that led Louie to turn to alcohol and petty theft. He found a healthier outlet when his brother introduced him to track (he eventually became the “fastest high school runner in U.S. history,” the movie claims), and when he makes it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he nods in solidarity at both black and Japanese competitors.
Such cross-cultural kinships would have likely been illustrated with more finesse by a more seasoned filmmaker; however, Jolie’s worldly, non-Tinseltown exploits seem to have palpably informed her work, making her the rare American director of combat cinema whose outlook is as temperate as it is unapologetic. In tackling Louie’s story (which sees him transition from Olympian to soldier to castaway to POW to war hero), she takes on a production of monumental scale, filmed in multiple countries and in vast expanses of the open, pitiless Pacific, but her willingness to go big is less impressive than her unwillingness to go gentle.
On more than one occasion, Alexandre Desplat’s hyper-emphatic score feels designed to scoop your heart up out of the proverbial trenches, but in many intimate moments, Jolie assures that she isn’t one for sentimental compromise. (Spoilers ahead.) After a failed rescue mission on a faulty plane leaves Louie, Phil (Domnhall Gleeson), and Mac (Finn Wittrock) stranded in the ocean for what will amount to 47 days, perspectives on death and reality aren’t comfortably diluted. Soon enough it’s clear that Mac has mere hours left (despite eating captured fish and drinking precious rainwater), and when he asks Louie if he’s “going to die tonight,” the sudden response of “maybe,” however casually delivered, feels jarring in a genre wherein so many characters would have smiled and lied to their ailing cohorts. And when Louie and Phil are finally transported to a Japanese POW camp, presided over by Corporal Watanabe (Miyavi), a.k.a. “The Bird,” Louie becomes the target of Watanabe’s insecurity-fueled violence, the blows and blood of which Jolie never shies away from highlighting.
Aside from the naggingly persistent visual motif of huge vehicles (planes, ships) dwarfing puny humans in shadow (Roger Deakins’s cinematography is sadly prosaic), Unbroken’s chief misstep is taking its title too literally, and ultimately depicting Louie as an indestructible—and thus largely inhuman—superhero. Though the can-do pluck he develops is clearly in response to the prejudices of his past, Louie’s characterization is defined by his near-unflagging resourcefulness, and the certainty that he’ll conquer any hurdle in his path. Jolie doesn’t devote enough time to penetrating her hero’s vulnerability, which is why the film’s strongest scene, by a mile, is the one in which Louie truly exhibits a belief that he’ll be executed, tearfully surrendering to a hopelessness that the ever-fascinating O’Connell portrays with a stunning disregard for vanity. Still, even if Louie registers as more of a cypher-ish type of soldier than a fragile individual, he’s a non-hoo-ra, non-trigger-happy type we don’t see enough of on screen.