Unbroken is the first film directed by Angelina Jolie. That alone has given it a lot of hype, but it’s easy to understand why it would be pushing at Oscars anyway. It’s base on the true story of a WWII hero and Oscar just eats up historical war dramas like that. Legendary and Universal clearly are setting this up as Oscar bait.
There’s a difference, however, between deserving an Oscar and desperately trying for one. Unbroken is desperately trying for one. “I should be an Oscar film,” it screams without actually being one. Like a spoiled rich kid it believes it deserves something that it hasn’t earned.
Director: Angelina Jolie
Release Date: December 25, 2014
In a surprising twist for Hollywood, it’s quite possible you don’t know the true story that the film is based on as the legend of Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his POW experience during WWII has faded into history. O’Connell gets shot down while bombing Japan and he, Francis ‘Mac’ McNamara (Finn Wittrock) and Russell Allen ‘Phil’ Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) are the only ones to survive in two tiny life crafts. After days at sea they are finally rescued by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp where Louis is tortured and beaten by Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). The film is basically his tail of survival.
Sadly, Jolie doesn’t quite have the skill to make it seem genuine. While there’s plenty of budget and everything looks fine most scenes come off painfully contrived. The feeling is that the film is more concerned with tugging at your heartstrings than telling a truly affecting story. By the film’s end you can guess every emotional key stroke the movie is going to make. The emotional impact of true heroism sucked out of the film because it is trying just so hard to be about true heroism.
Jolie also makes the mistake of telling instead of showing (unlike the far superior Selma). The movie jumps back and forth in time as we go through the checklist of life moments that make the man into a legend. Instead of getting to know him we get to know a rough sketch of him. Instead of focusing on the character we focus on the life and lose the character because of it. This is especially true when Louis is in the prison camp. Great opportunities are missed to develop his relationship with Mutsushiro (and to develop Mutsushiro into a better character), but the film is so set on telling it’s story points it never allows it. It’s surprising since the Coen brothers took a crack at the script, but it’s true.
That’s not to say the Jolie is completely incompetent behind the camera. The film looks fantastic, and when it isn’t trying to pander it does some very interesting things. While the Louis/Mutshushiro relationship is not as good as it could have been it is still intriguing, and Jolie has shown that she can at least piece together a competent story, even if it doesn’t strive to be anything more than what it looks like.
There are some fantastic performances buried in the melodrama and checkbox plotting as well. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Jack O’Connell if this is the kind of performance he’s going to deliver. It isn’t perfect as he’s often played into some particularly cheesy scenes, but he does deliver. And any film with Domhnall Gleeson is going to get better not matter what it is.
Unbroken isn’t a train wreck, but it just wants to be so much more than it is. A paint by numbers retelling of a fantastic story that pulls at the heartstrings with cliche rather than true emotion. It isn’t a film that’s not enjoyable to watch, it’s just sad to see it try so hard doing all the wrong things.