Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of the same name about Olympian and WWII vet Louis Zamperini, opens with a first-rate action sequence. Shot inside an Allied bomber threatened by antiaircraft fire and Japanese fighter planes, it’s a pulse-pounding beginning that leaves you exhilarated and horrified. It’s proof that Jolie has directing chops, but unfortunately, it’s also the best scene in the movie—after that mission ends, the screenplay becomes a repetitive bore.
The film settles into a series of very long sequences. Louis (Jack O’Connell) grows up a rough-hewn kid on the verge of becoming a full-on delinquent, until his brother starts training him to be a track star. Louis excels at the sport, and eventually represents America at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. During his training, he learns to become resilient and disciplined; his brother’s words of advice, “If you can take it, you can make it,” push him to overcome any adversity.
He must live up to that adage under the most extreme circumstances after his plane is shot down during another bombing raid. He is stranded at sea for more than a month, only to be found by the Japanese and forced to endure constant physical abuse at the hands of sadistic prison-camp guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Japanese pop star Miyavi), who wants to break Louis’ indomitable spirit.
And that’s exactly what viewers are subjected to for the bulk of Unbroken‘s exhausting 137-minute runtime: the ceaseless torture of a human being. The closest comparison to this movie isn’t another POW film, but Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ. That feeling is underscored by both the picture’s religious subplot—Louis swears to devote himself to God if He allows him to survive—and the Christian iconography Jolie relies on throughout. This motif comes to a head in the climactic moment when Watanabe forces the physically hobbled Louis to hold a heavy log of wood over his body, and Jolie shoots this torture scene so that Louis looks like he’s being crucified.
Jolie consistently shows that she has a great eye. She‘s a talented director, but her four screenwriters—Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson (all Oscar nominees, and two of them winners)—fail to make Louis anything more than a symbol of extreme perseverance. The text at the end of the movie gives us a hint of the emotional fallout of his hellish experiences, but the film itself never takes the time to show him experiencing a moment of doubt—pain, absolutely, but never doubt.
Unbroken ends up telling only a fraction of Louis Zamperini’s remarkable life story. By focusing on the most extreme parts of it, he becomes a symbol rather than a three-dimensional person. The end makes a glancing acknowledgement that Louis, decades later, found and forgave his captors, an act of Christian faith arguably more powerful than surviving unimaginable torture. But Unbroken, for the most part, is interested only in endurance.