As a thirteen-year-old, I thrilled to the adventures of Jim Graham in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," and I imagine today's thirteen-year-old boys will prove similarly enthralled by Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken."
That's the best news about Universal Pictures' adaptation of the non-fiction bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand ("Seabiscuit"), which also boasts supple photography by Roger Deakins ("No Country for Old Men") and a creditable lead performance by newcomer Jack O"Connell ("Starred Up"). But demographics outside of male pubescence are likely to be tougher audiences for this flatfooted recounting of the life of Louis Zamperini, the Italian-American Olympic runner whose Army Air Forces service found him adrift in the Pacific Ocean and, later, trapped in a Japanese P.O.W. camp.
Jolie's respectful, tasteful version of events -- her second narrative feature as director -- realizes a respectful, tasteful screenplay from Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men"), Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King") and William Nicholson ("Shadowlands"). That's a heck of a lot of screenwriting talent attached to what turns out to be a perfectly obvious, generic and even corny script: the weakest link in an artistically dubious enterprise. "Unbroken" serves as a calling card for O'Connell, who obligingly and believably trudges through Zamperini's Stations of the Cross, but there's little insight to be gained, and even less holiday entertainment, from these 137 minutes.
Suffering is decidedly the point, to the tune of this advice from Louis' brother, Pete (John D'Leo): "If you can take it, you can make it." While that might make a fine bumper sticker or fortune cookie, it's not a lot on which to hang a picture like this one. Tom Stoppard's script for "Empire of the Sun" -- likewise about traumatic WWII isolation and prison camp survivalism -- carried his signature intelligence and lyricism. Following blistering early sequences of military aviation, Jolie's film works its way predictably through Zamperini's story with little in the way of surprise or creative spark to justify a cinematic treatment. The film's only subtlety is in momentarily feigning toward plot developments that never come.
"Unbroken" does arrive at lessons in forgiveness -- for the war crimes perpetrated by Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "The Bird" (Miyavi) -- though the drama of these lessons remains effectively off screen. Ultimately, the lesson of "Unbroken" seems to be this: Louis Zamperini suffered horribly for America, so the least you can do is watch this movie about it.
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language. Two hours, 17 minutes.