Jack O'Connell plays Louie Zamperini, an Olympian-turned-POW, in "Unbroken."

Universal Pictures

Angelina Jolie
Stars: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

There are three movies in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” and you’re bound to like at least one of them. One is a gruesomely sappy elegy to youth and America on the brink of World War II — a stretch not unlike the opening to Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” minus any sense of satire or self-awareness. The second is a liferaft picture — less the fantastical “Life of Pi” than Alfred Hitchcock’s grittier-minded “Lifeboat.” The third is a POW camp grinder, dragging us through the 2 ½ years its hero — real-life Olympian-turned-soldier-turned-prisoner Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) — spent being beaten down and just plain beaten until the war ended.

This is a lot for a second-time director to handle, and that’s ignoring the burdens of doing period and covering not only a real person’s life but a life already chronicled in a mega-bestseller (by Laura Hillenbrand). It’s not surprising that the results are fragmented, not of a piece and spotty. Part of that is because there’s no center of gravity. Ostensibly that’s supposed to be Zamperini himself, but likable as O’Connell is in the role his character is a cipher — a routine wimp turned hero with no apparent inner life besides his basic, albeit unusually intense, struggle for survival. The closest it gets to a fascinating character is fellow prisoner John Fitzgerald, but that’s mostly because he’s played by Garrett Hedlund, curiously, in full taciturn Brad Pitt mode.

As such, the film really does feel like three different, albeit linked. For what it’s worth Jolie fares best, which is to say very well, with the liferaft chapter. It has the precision, patience and variety of camera angles required to sell the feeling of spending, as Zamperini and two soldiers did, a month and a half afloat. Jolie is tough and even funny, not making a meal over her characters catching and feasting upon fish and even a nice seagull. But it still feels like a director’s exercise; she’s just showing she can do a certain type of picture. The first section is creepily spot-on imitation Ron Howard, with soaring music cues, cheeseball aphorisms (“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory,” Zamperini’s brother helpfully informs him) and cheeseballier jokes (“I hope you’re not as fast in the sack,” someone tells Zamperini, who can run fast).


It’s not till the third, POW camp section that the real Jolie seems to make herself known. “Unbroken” is only her second film, after the Bosnian war saga “The Land of Milk and Honey,” so it’s unclear who she is yet as a filmmaker. Based on these two films she appears to be most driven by suffering, misery and at least a heaping helping of psychosexual tension. Once Zamperini is deposited in the first of three shown Japanese POW camps, “Unbroken” turns into a grueling look at purest survival. Zamperini winds up catching the eye of a sadistic, bamboo stick-wielding sergeant, dubbed “The Bird” (pop star Miyavi), who singles him out as the brunt of most of his torture. One sequence finds him ordering every prisoner coldcock Zamperini, who not only takes it but encourages those who are hesitant. Another depicts him forced to hold a big metal slab over his head for hours while The Bird stares on in orgasmic frustration.

The unrequited love between torturer and torturee gives “Unbroken” a crazed edge that helps dilute the sentimentality. Jolie gives us the triumph of the human spirit business, but such moments feel insincere, or at least rote. This is an inspirational weepie directed by someone far more interested in the tougher, weirder aspects. Jolie tries to do both, but what she really does is make an old school biopic that feels stranger than all of them. When she finds her shtick she’ll never make something as pat as “Unbroken.” It’s clearly beneath her talents, much less interests.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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