Subtext, Please

‘Unbroken’ needs more explanation on what made Zamperini’s greatest generation great

Hollywood faces this dilemma all the time: What do you cut out of the book and what do you salvage to keep the spirit and primary themes intact? The Goldilocks zone for movies is somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. Though some pictures are getting longer (particularly this time of year), two-and-a-half hours is still about the limit for most people. So when you adapt a novel like "Gone Girl" or a biography like "Unbroken," some things just won't survive the translation.

Missing in "Unbroken" is subtext. Like, all of it. It's as if director Angelina Jolie is rolling the dice that you'll remember the name of this movie and just apply it to every scene in which a lesser man than Louie Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) would just quit. Or die. Odd, too, that this adaptation, at least at one point in the process, went through the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen—two of the most accomplished film writers of their generation—but it still came out this one-dimensional.

The book, by "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand, was deservedly an enormous success. She's a hell of a writer and the story of Zamperini's reckless youth, Olympic glory, and World War II heroism is the stuff the American dream is made of. When they talk about the greatest generation, it's guys like Louie Zamperini. While it's true that you get the sense of all of that in Jolie's film—her second as a director—there's not much in the way of explanation about Zamperini's fortitude, about what truly made him unbreakable. It's left to flashbacks to fill in those blanks, and they don't.

Zamperini was a Japanese prisoner of war, a condition he found himself in only after having survived for eight weeks in a life raft following a plane crash in the Pacific. For more than two-and-a-half years, he was mercilessly abused by Mutushiro Watanabe (Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi), later declared a war criminal for his savage treatment of POWs. After we see young Louie veer from a path of petty crime and on to the race track, the rest of "Unbroken" is principally reserved for just how much punishment the young soldier can take.

What's remarkable about the film's unremarkability is how good so many things really are. Jack O'Connell is great as Zamperini and he's matched by the depravity of Miyavi's Watanabe. As a director, Jolie's command of the period and her visual sensibilities are right on. Her pacing, too, should be commended, particularly when Zamperini and two others are adrift in the Pacific for 47 days. It's a beautifully made movie, one the director was clearly invested in. But it favors polish over power, a 180-degree turn from her debut feature, the Bosnian war drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey." That film, despite its problems, went into sobering, intricate detail about its war crimes while "Unbroken" seems content to just implicitly ask you, "Isn't all of this abuse awful ... again?"

To Jolie's credit, however, neither of her films feel like vanity projects—the trifles of the starlet who just wants to direct. It's true that she hasn't found whatever it takes to be a great director yet, but both movies do a few things right. In this case, it has all the markings of a screenplay problem, the classic cautionary tale of a beautiful, powerful book that can never be enough of either—much less both—when they chop it up and turn it into a movie.

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