Laura Hillenbrand, author of the book “Unbroken,” is a writer of great taste and enormous talent. She told the true, fully-human story of Louis Zamperini in a way that put his horrific experiences in World War II into the context of an extraordinary life. My question: would director Angelina Jolie turn that same life into a torture-filled cringe-fest focused on the Japanese POW camps of World War II? I needn’t have worried. Although nearly half of this 137-minute movie takes place in the camps, Jolie provides enough of the backstory to make Zamperini’s mental and physical toughness understandable — and she offers enough balance in the POW experience to enable us to see its brutality without becoming over-burdened by it. The movie is sometimes not easy to watch but it’s always bearable. Although we begin with Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) as a bombardier in the war, Jolie cuts back and forth to his days as a petty thief in California and to his record-setting performance in the 1936 Olympics to give us a fuller sense of his life.
But the defining moments of that life began when he survived an air crash at sea, ended up in a life raft for 47 days at sea and spent the remainder of the war in a succession of camps where he came under the sadistic eye of “Bird,” (Miyavi), the commandant who signaled him out for special punishment. Jolie’s movie is well cast and well-staged, if a bit bland. The neatly-combed hair and lack of scruffy beards among the prisoners is a bit distracting, but surprisingly, what’s mostly missing here is visceral emotion, a deep sense of the characters’ character. Bird should have been evil incarnate; we should have more fully felt Louis’ joy in running and pain in suffering; we should have struggled with him as he fought to keep from attempting revenge. At no point are we brought to laughter or reduced to tears. In the end, we should have been more affected by the man who, by everything he endured through his long and adventurous life, was “Unbroken.”