Peppered with flashbacks to highlight key moments from Zamperini’s formative years – including his introduction to long-distance running as a boy, and his headline-making appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – the film primarily centers on his last two years in the military. A bombarbier, “Zamp” and his crew narrowly escape death in a thrilling opening-sequence dogfight, only to crash into the ocean days later while stuck flying a “lemon plane.”
With eight of his comrades killed in the crash, Zamperini is left adrift in a raft the middle of hundreds of miles of open water along with two fellow survivors (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock). This half of the film is by far the more compelling, as the men – without any real tools or supplies, and certainly no food or water – devise creative ways to survive, both physically and mentally. In this single setting, with just three characters, Unbroken is riveting.
But the moment the men are taken prisoner by a passing Japanese ship, Unbroken veers away from its emotional center and Zamperini’s survival story devolves into an endurance exercise… for him and the audience. The last hour of the film mainly involves Zamperini being mercilessly beaten – over and over and over again – by a ruthless Japanese official nicknamed “the Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara, in a stirring performance). Unlike the trapped-on-a-raft sequences, there is nothing to explain how he survived or kept his wits about him until war’s end, or found the strength to stand up after the umpteenth time he was knocked down. It’s just scene after scene of fresh new Hells for a seemingly invincible, and quietly noble, victim of circumstance.
It’s a shame, too, because Jolie misses a wonderful opportunity to shine a light on Zamperini’s character and inner strength – which, presumably, are behind her fondness for him and were contributing factors to his survival. Instead, the audience is left to infer that maybe Zamp made it through the torture because… he was an athlete and could withstand physical hardship?
On the upside, O’Connell makes for an engaging, open lead, and his powerful performance will no doubt boost his Hollywood cache. Ishihara takes the bigger risk, though, since his character – whom he skillfully portrays – is anything but sympathetic. Think: Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. The supporting cast, especially Gleeson and Wittrock, also deserve kudos, if for no other reason than having to undergo dramatic physical transformations as part of their work in the film.
While Zamperini’s life was undeniably one worth turning into a film, Unbroken is not unlike a 5,000-meter runner who hasn’t yet figured out how to pace himself. It’s a movie that starts out really strong but then, unfortunately, slowly loses steam as it heads towards the finish line.