There's something curiously airless about director Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, the story of real-life Olympian and WWII P.O.W. Louis Zamperini. Early on, Louis (Jack O'Connell) and his fellow American soldiers are zipping through the golden skies, dogfighting with Japanese planes, and, though the B-24's doors are open and the wind is wild, their hair is perfectly in place. When shot, the men do not bleed. When they die, their corpses smile. When enemy planes explode, they do so in glorious puffs. The effect is applause-worthy and antiseptic — a war film that wants to sell bleach.
Unbroken is the most literal film of the year — it's wholly the tale of a victim who won't crack. Make that three films — it plays like several shorts edited end-to-end. The first takes place during the Dust Bowl, which you can tell because of all the visible dust. This segment is a cheery tale of an immigrant boy made good, a kiddie thug (C.J. Valleroy plays young Louis) who sneaks booze into milk bottles and goes home to a dear Italian mamma who makes gnocchi from scratch and prays for his soul. Louis gets his life on track only when his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) encourages him to run. He's a natural, setting high-school records without breaking a sweat, racing the fastest lap at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and, later, continuing to train even during the war while stationed in the Pacific, where he optimistically hopes he'll return to show off his 4:12 mile in the Tokyo Olympics. (A fellow soldier jokes, "I hope you're not that fast in the sack.")
The second and third acts are nightmares. On a routine rescue mission, Louis' plane crashes into the ocean, killing eight of the 11 men aboard. We gasp when we see his leg pinned under the fuselage — will he ever race again? Very quickly, it's clear that winning a gold medal is the least of his problems. Jolie settles into the survivors' raft for a long stretch at sea where, unlike the high-flying heroics of the opening scrap, we feel every creak and breeze. (Curiously, the facial hair of the three men remains tidy — after weeks afloat, they sport neat Errol Flynn mustaches.)
It's miserable stuff, a total tonal shift, not to mention the sharks. Yet it gets even worse when the boys are scooped up by the Japanese and shoved into separate P.O.W. camps. (Groans Louis at their rescue: "I've got good news and bad news.") What follows is unceasing torture, onscreen and vicariously in the theater. At the hands of pretty-boy war criminal Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), the Americans are beaten and beaten and beaten. The techniques might differ: a nose broken here, fingernails yanked there, and a whirligig wrencher where Louis is punched by literally every Yankee in the barracks, absolving them even as they bust his eye sockets.
By then, the life raft is leagues away, the marmalade childhood farther still. But we're no closer to figuring out the point of Unbroken other than to marvel at Louis' strength. Undoubtedly, the real Louis Zamperini was a true hero — a word also used to describe American Sniper's Chris Kyle shooting up 160 Iraqis one theater away. Yet what makes Zamperini a role model isn't his appetite for death; it's his gift of forgiveness. After a full hour of P.O.W. torture with enough blood and bruises to make even modern pacifists want to build a time machine and avenge themselves on the Imperial Japanese Army, Jolie lets us know in a crawl that after Zamperini was freed in 1945, he went home, found God, and returned to Japan five years later, where he embraced his former captors. Now that takes courage.
Yet Jolie is fixated more on gore than grace. In making us feel every crushing blow — the better to burnish her reputation as a serious director — we're shortchanged on the beauty of Zamperini's story, and we exit blinking into the theater lobby with our hands still clenched in fists. Unbroken wants it all: the big cinematography, the close-up grit, the postcard flashbacks, and the grisly Götterdämmerung that earns directors awards. But it aches for a lighter touch — the facts of Zamperini's life more than stand on their own.
Still, in the lead role, O'Connell is an excellent punching bag. He has the look of Saint Sebastian, all model cheekbones and misery. Many of the humans here feel like props, but when the camera pans over O'Connell, he confidently stares back. Over and over, he repeats a mantra learned from his older brother: "If I can take it, I can make it." Alas, Jolie seems to have reversed his words. She has the clout to make anything, but with a story this powerful, just getting it made isn't enough.