They won't be putting it on the poster, but, as Angelina Jolie's second film as director powers towards cinemas, one unfortunate quote is elbowing all pithy raves into the gutter. Does Unbroken really look like the work of a "minimally talented spoilt brat"? Well, it's better than at least half of George Clooney's directorial output and nobody's giving that silver fox metaphorical wedgies via leaked email.
Jolie has certainly (beware, faint-praise Klaxon) lured many talented people into her tent. Her large-scale, old-school adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s book – detailing the extraordinary tale of war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini – draws a disciplined performance from the deservedly unavoidable Jack O’Connell. Alexandre Desplat’s score swells gorgeously. Cinematographer Roger Deakins casts a smoky light over even the most traumatic incidents. The only things missing are character and plot.
Of course, plot is not the same thing as story. By the time of his 28th birthday, Zamperini (who, poignantly, died earlier this year) had lived through sufficient adventures to generate an entire library of boys’ own yarns. Raised in Los Angeles, he ran for the US in the 1936 Olympics and, though he failed to win a medal, did well enough to suggest that a distinguished career was looming. When war came, he enlisted in the air force and earned a commission as a bombardier. As the film explains, Zamperini survived at least one close scrape with death before his plane crashed into the Pacific with the loss of eight crew members. Our hero was one of three who survived.
Later, after an extraordinary 47 days adrift, he was fished out by the Japanese and dispatched to a characteristically brutal prisoner-of-war camp.
Four distinguished writers – the Coen brothers among them – have wrestled with Hillenbrand’s book, but none has managed to work any interesting kinks into a drearily linear narrative. Though individual episodes are fascinating – the fight for survival on the raft is properly gripping – we never encounter the interlocking arcs or complementary circumstances that turn a story into a plot. The train just trundles on by.
Alec Guinness's incarceration within the tin shack in The Bridge on the River Kwai was connected to a wider narrative involving the conflict between duty and morality. A similar act of endurance by Zamperini late in Unbroken emerges as a discrete episode with no larger significance.
More seriously still, the film is almost entirely devoid of personalities. No blame should attach to the actors. Looking unexpectedly like a young Dirk Bogarde, O'Connell – who has already excelled in '71 and Starred Up this year – offers a masterclass in pained repression and inner strength. However fraught the circumstances, he never gives in to the showy emote. Yet there is little else to this Zamperini, aside from determination, bravery and resistance. We get as much of his true character from his Wikipedia entry as we do from the shallow script.
Domhnall Gleeson, playing another survivor of the crash, is as charismatic and sweetly voiced as ever, but he, too, is attacking a shadow rather than a personality.
Worst served of all is Miyavi as Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the Japanese guard who most tormented Zamperini. The actor is stuck with a one-dimensional monster who, just as Zamperini only lives to be brave, only lives to inflict pain and misuse power. Crucially (unlike, say, Ralph Fiennes's Amon Goeth in Schindler's List), this version of Watanabe seems to know that he is evil. That is how Bond henchmen behave, not the antagonists of grown-up dramas.
Still, for all its abundant flaws, Unbroken serves as an attractive showcase for some of Hollywood's most reliable or promising professionals. It's the sort of film that used to win best-picture Oscars in the 1980s. The awareness that such movies manage that feat less often these days makes Unbroken a little bit harder to dislike.