Once upon a time I was shocked studios would spend so much money sending screeners all over the place but when it comes to Hollywood excess, this is the least of it. Believe it or not, even though we have a fairly large flat screen, we try to avoid watching the screeners and take in screenings to enjoy the film as it was meant to be seen, instead, but it's impossible. It's the holidays. Squeezing in a screening just isn't that easy; the most convenient locations, the most desirable times, they get filled up quickly. We always take comfort in the enclosed note like this one from Universal
"While we hope you will make every effort to experience these films on the big screen as they were intended, we would like to offer you every opportunity to consider our films."
I'm not sure why but it may have had something to do with misplaced focus and lost opportunities. The focus, you see, was on Louis, played by Jack O'Connell, all the time. Clearly Unbroken is his story of survival, but as told by Jolie, the other actors seemed less than supporting players and more like accessories. Domhnall Gleeson, as Phil, one of the two men Louis is adrift at sea with, is wasted in a role as bleached-out as his hair in the film. Given very little to do other than look emaciated and exhausted, the Irish actor is fine as far as he's allowed to go, barely giving his American accent a workout. Finn Wittrock, the third shipmate, has a bit more to do as they float about under the beating sun, and learn how to catch fish with their bare hands and eat it raw, but the extreme weight loss the actors underwent was barely worth the end result.
What it felt like is that Jolie was so taken with Zamperini's story and O'Connell as an actor that she thought we'd be just as fascinated as she was to stare at him for two hours and seventeen minutes, to watch him endure unrelenting hardship and beatings, and survive. O'Connell is a tremendous actor but ultimately the survival story we see just doesn't have enough payoff.
After Zamperini is finally found at sea, the men are sent to a prisoner of war camp. Here we see the unrelenting punishment, most, if not all of it directed at Zamperini. Here especially is where I thought Jolie squandered opportunities. Again we focus on O'Connell as Louis with very few scenes that help us know his fellow prisoners better, and therefore him better. While there is a brief moment of levity as a group of prisoners empty the latrines, it's mostly scene after scene of the camp commander — intensely played Takamasa Ishihura AKA Miyave, a Japanese singer/songwriter— dishing up punishment to Louis.
Jolie misses out on the chance to deliver some Great Escape camaraderie, not just to lighten things up a bit, but to enhance our emotional investment in Louis and the other men. Without being given the chance to get to know a few of the other prisoners a little bit better — Garrett Hedlund as the American commander is allowed a few lines and a wink — we're left strangely in the cold, without an emotional touch point to hang our own feelings on. Louis is brutally picked on by the camp commander yes, but without caring who the other prisoners are, we're left flinching in horror but without empathy. Watching a stranger being punched can not compare with watching someone you love, admire and respect being hit and humiliated. That for me was the biggest problem; I wanted to know who these other men were, how Louis felt about them, how they felt about him. Jolie, working from a script by the Cohen Brothers, Richard Gravenese (Beyond the Candelabra) and William Nicholson (Gladiator, Mandela, Les Miz) chose not to give us that experience, and the film suffered for it. A case of too many cooks perhaps? Even music by Alexandre Desplat didn't provide its customary uplift.
My understanding is that this experience turned Zamperini into a devout Christian who spent his life practicing forgiveness rather than seeking revenge; there's a scene where Louis, still at sea, calls out to God that if He saves him, Louis will be forever be in his service. And that's the end of it; there is no scene of thanks, no more prayers to God for deliverance, no asking God to give him strength, no requests for understanding, mercy, forgiveness. I'm an agnostic but in my darkest moments I know that I pray for God to exist, for God to be there for me and to give me hope. That too, the acknowledgement of the answered prayer, would have made the experience richer. Without it, Louis's survival, the war's end, the return home, lacked the triumphant transcendence and feel good glow of the very best films.