The remarkable life of Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic runner and World War II prisoner in Japan who somehow managed to forgive his captors, is a worthy subject for a big screen treatment. There are important and deeply relevant lessons to be derived from the story of a man who valued healing instead of revenge in the wake of immense brutality.
That narrative is neglected in Angelina Jolie's heartfelt but shallow adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's acclaimed biography "Unbroken." The movie gives us the first two acts and glosses over the third, reducing the most noteworthy component of Zamperini's story to an end credits footnote.
Jolie, working from a screenplay credited to four individuals including the Coen brothers, fashions Zamperini's tale as a survival spectacle. Of course, the movie requires an in depth depiction of the protagonist's years in captivity, including beatings and backbreaking manual labor in coal mines.
And make no mistake; the second-time filmmaker does an engaging job of this, crafting high drama out of Zamperini's 47-day stint on a raft in the Pacific with two fellow airmen after their plane crashes and in the unflinching portrayals of the abuse meted out by his tormenters.
Jolie profits from star Jack O'Connell's ferocious intensity; it takes a certain sort of complexion to make us believe that someone could persevere through this experience, and O'Connell has it. Wide shots capture the martial precision and overwhelming grandeur of the prison camp while tight, gritty close-ups illustrate its physical and spiritual toll.
It just feels so incomplete. The most impactful shot in the whole movie, the only one that really gets to you emotionally, is documentary footage of the real Zamperini back in Japan during the 1980s and running with the Olympic torch. The journey to that place of forgiveness and reconciliation is neglected in favor of prison camp minutiae. Sincere and well-meaning, "Unbroken" nonetheless sells its hero short.