Remember earlier this year, when the underseen and underrated Edge of Tomorrow (and I will continue to call it that) became the best movie for Tom Cruise haters to see? You had manifold opportunities to watch America's erstwhile box office crusher be eviscerated, maimed, and destroyed in a variety of creative and cathartic ways. It broke down the actor back to his essentials, and rebuilt a lot of good will for a performer who had seemed to go off the deep end. Now it just seems that he's comfortable swimming there.
For all you Jack O'Connell haters out there—and I can't imagine there are many—you will have a similar rollicking time with Unbroken, based on the true story of Louie Zamperini. In the film, we watch O'Connell starve, be beaten, and narrowly avoid being a shark's lunch. He injures his ankle, vomits, clean poop, becomes unrecognizably covered in coal dust, get punched in the face a whole lot, and watch most of his buddies die. I'd be wiling to bet that a lot more happened to Mr. Zamperini between the years of 1935 and 1945, but that's the gist of what we get. Oh, he was an Olympic runner, too, but who cares about that when there's glorious suffering to see?
Director Angelina Jolie doesn't seem to care. After having more-or-less implied that she's going to retire from acting, she has settled on the alternative, which in her case is to find true or truth-adjacent stories and rub your nose in the muckiest parts of them. This is her second feature film, her first being 2011's Bosnian War bore-fest In the Land of Blood and Honey. At this point, she's tipped her hand that she is a fan of misery—as is her hubbie, Brad Pitt, who produced last year's 12 Years a Slave—but she doesn't yet know how to pluck out all the psychologically interesting aspects of it, the one's that matter. It's apparent from Jolie's humanitarian work that she super cares about war and its related atrocities, but it remains to be seen why her vision of them is worth watching.
Zamperini (O'Connell) grows up tough in a working-class Italian-American family, shapes up by getting into track, sets records in the Olympics, and then goes to fight in World War II. He flies dangerous missions as a bombardier, until his plane goes down, stranding him in the middle of the ocean for 45 horrible days. Things get worse when he's picked up by the Japanese and taken as a prisoner of war, when Zamperini encounters sadistic, camp overseer Watanabe (Miyavi), who has it out for him in a big way, particularly with his bamboo stick. Then Zamperini gets tortured, physically and mentally. A lot.
If that sounds like a relatively commonplace account of a war story, it's because it plays that way. Jolie hasn't yet found a way to tell these stories in any manner but the most predictable and formulaic, featuring talented actors like Domhnall Gleason and Garrett Hedlund in roles that exist primarily for plot, and a lead actor so profoundly better than the material that he almost saves it. She also gets to work with cinematographer extraordinaire, Roger Deakins, whose devastatingly beautiful lighting and shadow are this film's reason to exist. And the fact that Zamperini's high school and olympic races end up being more thrilling and suspenseful than the ones involving torture seem to indicate that her talents lie elsewhere.
Weirdest of all are the assortment of screenwriters who worked on the film: the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, all of whom have great films under their belts, some more than others. Their prestige, and that of the rest of the creatives involved, seem to indicate that the film's middling quality lies squarely on Jolie's soldiers. Sure, she's inexperienced, but with so many resources—$65 million budget, ya'll—you'd think she'd pull something together that was less dull. She's zero for two, at this point. Maybe she shouldn't retire after all.