Angelina Jolie is inexorably drawn to war zones, not only as a UN peace ambassador, but in her budding third career as a film director. In 2011, she made her directorial debut with the Bosnia-set romantic drama In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Her new film, the misleadingly awards-tipped Unbroken, starts in 1943 in the dazzling, roseate skies above the Pacific, where Olympic sprinting champion Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) spent the first part of his war as a US Air Force bombardier.
This sequence – a bombing run and fraught aerial getaway – is the best by far in Jolie’s wartime ordeal drama, shot with skittering verve by Roger Deakins. It’s genuinely unpredictable. And you might want to make the most of it.
Once we’ve settled in for the long haul – flashing back to Louis’ childhood in Olean, New York, his discovery of athletics, and so on – the film settles into a For rest Gumpian groove that doesn’t glorify the human spirit so much as sap it.
The book of the same name, by Laura Hillenbrand, was never not going to be adapted. The author wrote Seabiscuit, which became one of 2003’s best picture contenders, and her research into Zamperini’s legitimately remarkable life story looks tailor-made for a saga of American pluck.
What’s puzzling, though, is how a big-hitting quartet of screenwriters, including Gladiator’s William Nicholson, Behind the Candelabra’s Richard LaGravenese, and even the Coen brothers, have wrestled with the material and collectively produced a take on it this limp.
The omens pile up in the pre-war years, especially when Louis’ older brother, Pete (Alex Russell), gives him coaching tips on the racetrack. Whether he’s gearing up for the 1936 Berlin Olympics or braving the brutal hardships of a Japanese POW camp, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that every single line spoken to him is, “You can do this, Louie!”, but that’s certainly the gist.
“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” has a particularly odd ring to it: in Hillenbrand’s book, the quotation is exactly the other way round (“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”), which makes more sense.
Jolie is a fascinating actress and now a film director on whom the jury is out, with worried face.
You can detect her interest in the violence men inflict on each other in war – there are next to no female characters, and for much of the film, O’Connell is stripped bare, gaunt and suffering.
When he’s forced to hoist a plank aloft all day by the POW commandant (Takamasa Ishihara, better known by day as the singer-songwriter Miyavi), Jolie’s pushing the imagery of Christian martyrdom close to breaking point.
Beat for beat, the interactions between these two men follow the sadomasochistic rubric of something like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, but in a feeble, faxed-in way.
Jack O’Connell’s smashing trajectory as a star also hits some bumps here, for reasons not wholly his fault. He’s at his best at sea, in the middle stretches when Louis and two fellow crew members from his shot-down bomber (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) drift 3 200km on a leaking life-raft, dodging shark attacks and Japanese strafing runs.
The logic of survival here is more practical, the you-can-do-it rhetoric unspoken, and more reliably compelling.
But when Louis’ self-belief is the only subject on screen, which is gormlessly often, Jolie presses her young lead into a lot of face-pulling, anguished grimaces and screams of violent elation.
We’re not dragged deeply into either a man’s soul or his character. Besides, the last part of Hillenbrand’s book – about Louis’ obsession with inflicting a bloody revenge on his tormentor – is wholly beyond the film’s remit.
This more troubling layer to his story is sliced off, ruthlessly cauterised.
To make a purely consoling myth out of his life, Louis must simply believe, triumph and survive, as inspirationally as possible, and with no inner contradictions to spike the brew.
Jolie has made a 137-minute long film that gets us barely further than a poster, and O’Connell is the poster-boy.
– The Telegraph