After months of waiting, "Unbroken" is finally upon us. This ambitious biopic from Angelina Jolie couldn't have entered this fall/winter movie season with higher expectations. Assembling a dream team of collaborators to work on this incredible true life story, many pundits even labeled it as an inevitable awards magnet. Of course, perception and reality and two different things. Now that it's finally here, did this ambitious production live up to its considerable potential?
"Unbroken" tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympian who became a prisoner of war during World War II. His journey begins in
New York, the son of Italian immigrants with an older brother and two younger sisters. Initially an aggressive, unruly boy (a response to constant school bullying) his life soon takes a drastic turn. Upon the urging of his brother Pete, he becomes a competitive runner, finding a new sense of self-discipline he never had before. Eventually he makes it on to the 1936 Olympic team, with hopes of making an even greater push at the following games.
Unfortunately, his athletic ambitions were curtailed when he enlisted to fight in World War II. This sent him on the awe-inspiring journey that makes up the majority of this film. After surviving a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, him and two other survivors spent 47 days stranded at sea, before being captured and placed in Japanese war camps. He eventually survives to tell the tale in his best-selling Unbroken biography, aptly subtitled "A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption."
As you can imagine, there's a lot of dramatic material to be found in this tale. With its vast geographical scope, intense wartime scenes and the highs and lows that come with it, the film's narrative arc is truly of Homer-ific proportions. It's easy to see why Jolie was so passionate about this project.
Unfortunately, she lacks the goods to bring it all together. Make no mistake, "Unbroken" looks and sounds good and its basic story is inherently captivating. Kudos to Roger Deakins' cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's mood-setting score in that regard. Yet it lacks the astute directing sensibilities to give it that extra "oomph". From an editing standpoint it's poorly assembled, lacking the narrative flow that would lend it gravitas. The initial non-linear cross-cutting of scenes is most ineffective, as the flashbacks barely seem to inform the scenes around them. As a result, the film never gets to build any cumulative impact. Say what you want about Christopher Nolan's bombastic style, but at least he knows how to build momentum in a story.
What it all boils down to is a film that is emotionally flat. As Zamperini, Jack O'Connell is certainly up to the task, but he's completely under-served by the screenplay. Perhaps there were simply too many cooks in this stew (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) because this script was disappointingly mediocre considering the pedigree of its screenwriters. For each section, the screenplay is only able to give our lead one note to work with - bright-eyed determination at home, tired optimism at sea and endless misery in the war camp. The one potential saving grace (Zamperini's spirituality and faith) seems to have been mostly excised from the script, leaving O'Connell to play a character without sufficient depth or nuance. Still, he does his best with what he's given, especially in terms of the role's physicality. The same can be said about the significant supporting players - Domhnall Gleeson, Garett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock and Miyavi (in a strong but uninspired debut performance).
It's no spoiler to reveal that "Unbroken" ends with images of the real life Louis Zamperini, overlaid by an uplifting original song by Coldplay. In this moment it accomplishes something that the preceding film didn't...it inspired. Jolie's final product is a commendable effort - it's nowhere near as mawkish as it could have been - but she clearly needs some more practice before she can tackle these big stories. In the right hands, I suspect there's still a great film to be made about this subject. I'll be right there if that happens.
As stated earlier, this film was expected to be a major Oscar juggernaut. Having now seen it though, I've tempered those expectations significantly. In fact, the only category where it seems to be a strong contender is Best Picture. Of course, a single nod for Best Pic would be strange right? For argument's sake then, I'll propose that it could show up in Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. I'm not confident about any of those however. We'll just have to wait and see what rewards Angie's campaign can garner in this awards season.