This passion project for Angelina Jolie shines in every frame with her abiding love for Louis Zamperini and his courage under fire. Zamperini died of pneumonia in July, at 97, but not before Jolie showed him a rough cut of the film on her laptop. In case you never read Unbroken, Seabiscuit author Lauren Hillenbrand's 2010 bestseller about Louis' life, here's a quick rundown: Raised in Torrance, California, the son of Italian immigrants, Louis was a bad boy destined for jail or worse until his older brother turned him on to running. He was good at it, competing in track at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (Hitler noticed him). During World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. When his B-24 went down in the Pacific, Louis survived on a life raft for a scarifying 47 days until he and others were captured by the Japanese, then starved and tortured for two years in a POW camp.
I could go on, as the book does, describing Louis' PTSD and alcoholism until Billy Graham helped him find God. But Jolie wisely ends her film with the war, which still leaves enough material to fill a miniseries or two. Hillenbrand's critics accuse her of riding the surface of Louis' blatantly inspirational tale. Jolie, working from a script polished by no less than the Coen brothers, needed to dig deeper, meaning she had to find the right actor to play Louis. Her choice, Jack O'Connell, justifies her faith. O'Connell (Starred Up) is a British dynamo with a true actor's instinct for getting inside a character's head. On the raft with fellow airmen Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), it's Louis who musters a glimmer of hope while sharks circle as relentlessly as despair. O'Connell makes us see how hard-won that hope is.
In only her second feature as director, following 2011's Bosnian drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie shows remarkable confidence and compassion. She excels in the vicious camp scenes (PG-13 pushed to the limit), in which Louis meets Watanabe, a.k.a. the Bird, a sadist guard whose love/hate for the Olympic athlete is chillingly pervy. Japanese rock star Miyavi (born Takamasa Ishihara) plays his first screen role with mesmeric brilliance, making the Bird's physical elegance a striking contrast to the savagery of his inhuman punishment.
Unbroken is beautifully crafted even in its brutality. A sequence near war's end, when Louis and the POWs are herded to a river expecting to be murdered en masse, is memory-scarring. Jolie has an army of craftsmen in her corner, notably camera poet Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men). But it's her vision that gives Unbroken a spirit that soars. In honoring Louis' endurance, she does herself proud.