- - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

‘Unbroken” is an odd fit for a Christmas Day release. It’s an uplifting movie, but also one that is frequently difficult to watch thanks to drawn-out scenes of wartime torture. And its uplift is not grounded in victory so much as in fortitude; it’s a movie in which the highest value is placed on the very act of staying alive.

Directed by Angelina Jolie, it’s an earnest and competent story of wartime survival, the true story of Olympic runner and World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who, after his plane crashes, is taken prisoner and repeatedly beaten and tortured as a Japanese prisoner of war.

The script is remarkably conventional considering that its authors are oddball filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, and it frequently underlines its simplistic themes. (“If you can take it, you can make it,” Zamperini’s older brother tells him, a motto he comes back to in the prisoner camp.) The obviousness of the dialogue extends to the movie’s psychology, which maintains a too-pat correlation between Zamperini’s gifts as a runner and his ability to endure endless suffering, first in an extended episode lost at sea and then in the Japanese prisoner camp.

But Ms. Jolie’s respectful and serious-minded direction makes the most of the underwhelming script. Her unflashy style draws a little from Mel Gibson and a lot from Clint Eastwood. She lingers on faces and bodies, picking shots that emphasize the arrangements of people in her scenes; she lets viewers see not only what her characters are doing, but how they are doing it — the way they carry themselves and their engagement with their actions and environments.

Like both Mr. Gibson and Mr. Eastwood, Ms. Jolie came to movies through acting, and also like both, she focuses the physical and mental aspects of suffering. “Unbroken” is a movie about pain, but it is also a movie about will and perseverance, about the ability to dive deep into oneself and tap inner strength in order to make it through an incredible ordeal. In some sense, then, it is a movie about acting, and the ways in which people under great duress survive by keeping alive the idea of themselves.

In this and other ways, the movie is a spiritual successor to Ms. Jolie’s directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a little-seen movie about an intense captor-prisoner relationship during the Bosnian conflict. That film was a harrowing and unforgiving look at the lengths that those trapped in conflict zones will go to in order to stay alive, and it was far more brutal than the comparably uplifting “Unbroken.” But the movies share an essential DNA: They are both wartime stories of power imbalances, physical suffering, mental trauma and the will to live.


SEE ALSO: ‘Exodus,’ Ridley Scott’s revisionist riff, is an epic mess


In “Unbroken,” Ms. Jolie is aided by simple, beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins and solid, unshowy performances from her relatively unknown cast. Ultimately, “Unbroken” is not a great movie, but it is often an admirable one, and it shows that Ms. Jolie has great promise as a director. No, it’s not quite a cinematic triumph, but if she perseveres, I suspect she’ll have one eventually.

 

TITLE: Unbroken

RATING: Rated PG-13 for wartime violence, cruelty and torture

CREDITS: Directed by Angelina Jolie, screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide