I’ve often struggled with how to describe what works in a movie and what doesn’t. Breaking through the standard “it was good”/“it was bad” dichotomy can be difficult, especially because my personal philosophy on what makes a movie “good” or “bad” tends toward the ineffable. But reaching an emotional connection to what’s happening onscreen is, unquestionably, a big part of it. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Angelina Jolie’s biggest budget directorial effort to date is that the emotional connection never comes.
Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, during which he survived a plane crash at sea and was subsequently captured and tortured by the Japanese military. Jolie’s film is an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling novel of the same name, and comes a decade after Hillenbrand's success with Seabiscuit. I’d like to say the only reason I didn’t connect emotionally to the film is because it left so much out, but that’s not quite right; I’m not even convinced that is a valid argument against any adaptation of a novel. You will never get an exact one to one translation because things must be compressed, changed, and moved around. That’s just how it works.
No, the problem with Unbroken is the (for lack of a better word) flatness of the translation from the novel. Many of the scenes -- like the crash survivors’ battle against sharks surrounding their lifeboats -- that crackle with excitement and tension in the book simply fizzle in the film. As if some scenes just had to be gotten over with, purely because they were in the book and the story required them.
Unbroken has four people listed as contributing to the screenplay. Conventional Hollywood wisdom says the more people who get their hands on a screenplay during its development, the more of a mess it turns out to be. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule. Four wordsmiths isn’t out of control, considering Scary Movie 2 had seven credited writers, but the real test is if those writers’ styles can mesh to form a cohesive finished product. Unbroken fails that test. Richard LaGravenese (The Mirror Has Two Faces, and The Fisher King), and William Nicholson (Gladiator and First Knight) both have writing credits here. Most surprising is the presence of Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers who have been responsible for some of the most original movie writing in the last 30 years – Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo to name a few. The writing in Unbroken is completely devoid of their distinctive style. I won’t try to speculate who is responsible for what in this screenplay, but the dialog is uninspired, uninteresting, and unexciting.
While I can’t recommend Unbroken because of its formal shortcomings, the content of the story is powerful, and needs to reach a large audience. In 1949, the United States helped draft the latest iteration of the Geneva Convention in the hope of preventing torture during war time. The fact that just a half century later, our nation was guilty of using the very tactics that Convention sought to end is a disturbing one. The similarity of what Louis Zamperini went through as a prisoner of war of the Japanese military, and America’s actions as described in the U.S. Senate’s so-called “Torture Report” that was released in December, is an important one to draw attention to. Both are powerful demonstrations in the disgusting things we are capable of doing to each other, and by exposing ourselves to those ugly truths it might be possible to end some human suffering.
In the case of Louis Zamperini’s story though, the unvarnished truths are much more compellingly told by Laura Hillenbrand’s book than by Angelia Jolie’s film. Movies have the power to let us see the world through someone else’s eyes in a way no other art form can. This only happens with the right emotional connection. Without that connection, movies are just moving pictures.