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  1. Life & Culture

Review: 'Unbroken," Angelina Jolie's passion, story of Olympian prisoner of war (w/video)

Angelina Jolie knows something about taking flak, feeling lost, adrift and imprisoned by fame. Doesn't compare to what Louis Zamperini endured during World War II but may explain why Jolie chose to direct Unbroken, a truncated adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's sprawling biography.

"If you can take it, you can make it," was the advice from his older brother that Zamperini carried with him to the 1936 Olympics, to war in the Pacific as a bombardier, through 47 days in a life raft at sea, then two years as a Japanese POW.

Personally and professionally, Jolie thrives on proving she can take it. With Unbroken she shows that as a filmmaker she will make it, too.

To be clear, this isn't the movie Zamperini's saga could be. That might require a trilogy, and more experience than Jolie's. Her only previous feature is 2011's modest In the Land of Blood and Honey. But there is a genuinely epic quality to Unbroken, cribbed from masters and capably traced. That's really all this inspiring story needs.

Jolie begins in the middle, with Louis (Jack O'Connell) and his B-24 bomber crew flying into enemy fire, and forced to crash land. It's a thrilling start, establishing Jolie's surprising handle on action CGI. Soon it's flashback time to Louis' delinquent youth and turnaround through running track in high school. The usual rah-rah stuff, which could be tightened.

We're ready for battle again but Jolie won't resist staging Louis' Olympics triumph in Berlin, finishing eighth out of nowhere in the 5,000-meter run. Like much of Unbroken, this expertly rendered sequence doesn't seem enough, yet there's so much more to cover. Why else wouldn't she portray Louis' congratulations from Adolf Hitler? Unbroken presents important events, not so many details.

Jolie settles into an actors' groove in a harrowing midsection, with Louis and surviving crewmates Phil Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac McNamara (Finn Wittrock), suffering sharks, enemy strafing and dehydration in a life raft for weeks. This is when O'Connell's portrayal begins to gel, an ordinary Joe surviving and pulling buddies with him by recalling Mama's gnocchi. The performance grows with Louis' will to live, a hero suitable for a David Lean epic.

Rescued by Japanese soldiers, Louis is sent to a prisoner of war camp, and Unbroken hits its River Kwai marching stride. The camp sergeant (Miyavi) is a bamboo sadist antagonized by Louis' Olympic fame. In one of O'Connell's most powerful scenes, the sergeant orders other POWs to punish Louis, unleashing his protective rage. It's one of several brutalities Jolie depicts that Japanese nationalists in denial are protesting.

What isn't disputed is the uplift of Zamperini's story, and Jolie's passion to share it, sadly six months after he died at age 97. Unbroken isn't much that we haven't seen in sports, wartime survival and defiance movies, but never happening to the same person. Even Steven Spielberg couldn't keep it wieldy. Jolie makes it. We'll take it.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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