The life story of Louis Zamperini is fascinating and wide-ranging, and it shouldn't even be possible to condense it into a movie as all-around misguided as Unbroken. But that's what happens when you throw an enormous non-fiction bestseller at talentless check-cashing hacks like Joel & Ethan Coen. Or something. I suspect that the story of the screenwriting process and WGA arbitration that led to a title card proclaiming this adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's book to be by "Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson" would be fascinating in its own right, though I would not want those four men to be responsible for writing it. Because if their combined skills couldn't do any better than this for poor Zamperini...

Zamperini, played here by Jack O'Connell in what is the highest-profile title of his big "look at me!" coming-out year as a new actor to watch, was an Olympic medalist in 1936 at Berlin, who set a handful of records during his career as a runner. He joined the Army Air Corps in World War II, survived one emergency landing and one crash into the ocean, floated for 47 days with two other men (one of whom died along the way), and spent two years in Japanese POW camps, including a lengthy stretch under the cruel ministrations of notorious war criminal Watanabe Mutsuhiro, "The Bird" (Japanese rock star Miyavi). After the war's end, Zamperini struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder which only started to recede when he converted to evangelical Christianity thanks to the preaching of Billy Graham, and his newly reinvigorated religion led him back to Japan, in order to offer his forgiveness to all the guards that had abused him during his time as a prisoner. After a lifetime as an inspirational figure, he was one of the runners carrying the Olympic torch near the end of its journey to Nagano, Japan for the 1998 Winter Olympics. And after all that, he passed away in 2014 at the age of 97.

That's a hell of a lot of living, and choices had to be made about what to focus on. But Unbroken finds the whole mess of writers making the very worst ones, alongside director Angelina Jolie, movie star, humanitarian, and most importantly for our present needs, helmer of the rather dry 2011 Bosnian War romance In the Land of Blood and Honey. Unbroken is arguably the better of her two films as director, though it's not much of an achievement, and more than it teaches us anything about the nobility of the human spirit or inner strength or anything else, the film teaches us that not every actor can automatically make the leap to directing, and that simply because one has the clout and access and moral fervor to make movies, that doesn't mean that one has the talent.

The film does not want to be a decade-spanning biopic, which is a thoroughly respectable impulse. In theory, then, it focuses all its energy on Zamperini’s time during the war, taking place across three narrative chunks: the failure of his first bomber under a barrage of enemy fire, done as a little mini-thriller to open the film, the crash of his second bomber and the 47 days floating on a pair of life rafts, a much longer stretch of narrative, and at last his two years as a prisoner of war being singled out for his Olympic fame to receive the nastiest abuse at the hands of his captors. Good enough, but there are two gaping problems, entirely unrelated, and they collaborate to make what could have been a nerve-wracking study of desperate survival into the most tedious drudgery. For one thing, though it attempts to not be a stock biopic, this is exactly what Unbroken ends up transforming into, thanks to its self-destructive over-reliance on flashbacks. They start early, and they start heavy: during that same assault that opens the movie, while focusing on Zamperini’s stressed-out face, the film snaps its fingers and BOOM we’re in his childhood, watching a potted history of his early passion for racing as a way of funneling all his rage against the racist bullies maltreating him into something active and construction, on to his Olympic glory. I will say about this that C.J. Valleroy, playing Zamperini as a child, is inspired casting: he’s a dead ringer of O’Connell and has the acting chops to sell the character.

On the other hand, this is a terrible, terrible digression, right off the bat: teasing us with story momentum and stakes that are instantly shelved in favor of a capsule biography that speeds by too fast to do much more than communicate information artlessly. And this is information we’ll receive later through dialogue, anyway. Of all the ways in which it beggars belief that the Coens were supposedly the last screenwriters to take a whack at this script, the puffy flashback structure (they’re threaded all through the first two chunks, drying up for the most part after he’s captured by the Japanese) is the one that seems most obviously dysfunctional and beneath the talents and accumulated wisdom of any of the credited writers.

This bone-headed mismanagement of structure rears its head in a different and maybe even uglier form at the very end: the main action concludes with the V-J Day, and the rest of Zamperini’s life story is told in the form of title cards with photographs of the actual people involved, as well as some footage from 1998 of the man trotting along with the Olympic torch. Standard biopic procedure, but the enormous volume of the closing text, spinning out for minute after minute, is indescribably crude: besides being an admission that there was a whole lot more story to tell, it strongly implies that the untold story was the more important bit, and that the material the film was able to cover was maybe not done in an efficient way.

No, make that definitely not done in an efficient way. The other gaping problem is that Unbroken, for a whole hour of its running time, is nothing but a repetitive catalogue of suffering, all done with a bloodlessly refined classiness that keeps cozily within the limits of a PG-13 rating. So it’s not just torture porn, it’s torture porn with no cumshot. Never has the endless suffering of a man who refuses to give in to his tormenters felt so goddamn boring: Jolie and her team never switch things up in any way, or structure things to feel like the stakes and tension are rising: you could isolate all the scenes for that second hour and re-arrange them any way you wanted, and the film would basically flow the exact same way: the Bird wanted to hurt Zamperini in some creative way, did it, Zamperini stayed strong.

What the film lacks is any insight into the mind of the sufferer or the torturer: after its last good scene, in which Zamperini and fellow survivor Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) are stripped in the jungle and force to the ground, where they expect to be executed and Zamperini breaks down, there’s not a single beat of the movie that focuses on the psychological impact any of this has. We are done spending time inside Zamperini’s head, where the first hour and its litany of flashbacks was so eager to position us: from here on, it’s just watching brutality. The only connective tissue between Jolie’s two films as a director thus far is an overweening interest in violence, shot with a clinical detachment that removes the human-scale cost of that violence; it’s not a lovely trend, and though absolutely nothing about Jolie’s very public private life suggests that she’s full of bloodlust, her directorial style has a nasty way of lingering on suffering for no reason other than the joy of lingering. The idea is that this is an inspiration testament to human endurance - “If I can take it, I can make it” chants Zamperini with poster-reader sincerity - but despite the clear evidence that plenty of viewers have walked away from it duly inspired, I don’t see a molecule of that in the film’s eager, documentarian interest in capturing all the nuances of how prisoners get beaten.

Jolie’s not incapable of making good cinema: the entirety of the raft sequence is generally great, a more severe, realistic version of Life of Pi with noticeably crummier CGI, or a three-handed successor to All Is Lost. If we think of Unbroken as three films stitched together (something the writing and editing and visual styles all encourage us to do), this one is above reproach, one of the best sustained passages of filmmaking of the (anemic, to be sure) 2014 prestige movie season.. But the ghastly structure of the first filmlet and the just plain ghastliness of the third hold the whole thing back.

The film is, on top of everything else, slackly made: the editing by William Goldenberg and Tim Squyres, is satisfactorily functional without being clever, surprising, or insightful, and the cinematography is a bit over-attractive when it’s not blandly reducing everything to a generic mixture of nostalgically-tinged brownish-greens. For living legend Roger Deakins to have overseen this tremendously uninteresting-looking film is even more shocking than thinking that his regular directors the Coens could have helped effect the script: it’s basically just a third-tier knockoff of John Schwartzman’s style executed without Schwartzman’s conviction, and with no complexity to the lighting. I can think of a handful of individual frames that really worked tremendously well, some despite themselves (the idea to visually represent Zamperini as a Christ figure was a terrible one, but Deakins executes it beautifully), but this is as thoroughly routine as anything he’s shot in over a decade. It’s heartbreakingly adequate. So to is the score by Alexandre Desplat, which is far less surprising - it’s a rare year that goes by without him producing at least slightly treacly, schlocky score, and after surprisingly dodging that bullet in The Imitation Game, he was due.

It is unfair and inappropriate to ask Unbroken to stand in as the sacrificial lamb for an entire movie year, as I have sort of done by making it the finale to this series. If anything, it feels like the embodiment of the movie year 15 years ago or so (it has been eleven years since Seabiscuit, also adapted from a Hillenbrand book, and the aesthetic similarities between this film and that are hard to ignore: they have virtually identical color schemes, for one). This kind of pseudo-inspirational Oscarbait-by-numbers filmmaking is almost quaint in 2014. And yet its dogged commitment to making something that tells us exactly what to feel in its pushy score and its dabbled images, to shamelessly courting emotions even though it’s sort of really bad in a lot of ways - well that is Hollywood, is it not, and even if Unbroken seems fated to be a (possibly Oscar-nominated) footnote in cinema history, it is exactly the sort of thing that the American film industry has always made to prove how damn-ass dignified and serious and artistic it can be. The firmly mediocre polish and surface-level thematic messaging that go into this film are, for better or worse - worse, definitely worse - the life’s blood of Hollywood filmmaking, now and forever.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2014
-Darren Aronofsky's distinctly non-traditional Noah is the biggest hit in an unexpected surge of religious and Bible-themed movies
-The government of North Korea and President of the United States Barack Obama both take a keen interest in the release pattern of innocuous dudebro comedy The Interview
-Guardians of the Galaxy is the only film to break $300 million during one of the financially weakest summers of the modern era

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2014
-Crabby old icon Jean-Luc Godard says Goodbye to Language with the help of avant-garde 3-D
-Australia's Jennifer Kent makes the scariest pop-up book in history the center of her directorial debut, The Babadook
-Lisandro Alonso's Jauja, an oblique philosophical drama, is among the better-received of the year's Argentine-Danish co-productions