Somewhere during the post production of the this film, there began to be a lot of Oscar buzz. Getting a Christmas day release, based off an acclaimed novel, and a centered around a story so incredible that it’s hard to believe someone actually went through something like. “Unbroken” had a lot riding on it for sure and while you’re watching there is really one thing you can point to on screen that is overtly wrong with it. Yet there is a lot of direction problems coming from the talented Angelina Jolie whom is able to craft some excellent moments; but the movie itself feels so standard and paint by numbers that it never capitalizes on its potential. Obviously well intended and good for history classes in schools all around but it lacks the power that something like this film should have.
“Unbroken” follows former United States Olympian, Louis Zamperini. During his service in World War II in a B-24 Liberator, him and his crew experience a near fatal crash in hostel waters. After a harrowing 47 days on a raft lost out at sea, Louis and what remains of his crew are captured by a Japanese vessel and taken as prisoners.
I admit upfront this is a hard story to tell properly. There are so many aspects of Louis Zamperini’s life that it’s hard to make a cohesive film covering all of it. There is his childhood, his Olympic life, his war service, getting stuck on the raft, getting captured by Japanese, making amends with his captures; this man has led a life full of extreme and interesting events, so it’s hard to pick a few to focus on. The way the film is structured it tries to encapsulate every aspect of his life. It’s excels at a few, but remains modest on the others.
It’s strengths lie in the war and raft sections of the story. The movies open up to harrowing and intense bombing run where Louis’s aircraft comes under fire from enemy fighter planes. This scene has a realistic weight to it and shows a different perspective on being a part of a bomber crew. We’ve seen it depicted as far back as Gregory Peck’s feature films in “Twelve O’ Clock High” back in 1949. Here though Jolie takes the time to show how the crew operated and the different duties of each crew member. It’s a fascinating and exciting segment that relays the dangers of being in such an aircraft. The special effects excel as the segment is seen almost entirely from the crew’s perspective making the enemy feel especially ominous and threatening.
After their plane crashes into the ocean in spectacular fashion, the crew is stuck on a raft for 47 days. In these solemn moments is where the danger and threat feels at its most palpable. Jolie does a more than solid job at conveying the dangers these men faced and how they dealt with surviving is extraordinary to see played out on screen. It’s to my utter bewilderment that someone actually went through these ordeals and lived; that baffles my mind.
Yet there is where the film succeeding starts to end. Even during those moments you begin notice some faults of the movie that become more apparent as the film moves into its second half. Jolie graces the screen with beautiful cinematography that feels a bit ripped out of a Clint Eastwood film but that beauty stats to become distracting. While this might seem like an odd thing to point and critique but it becomes more and more true as the film progresses. Everything is too pristine and perfected. The actors maintain their perfect pale white makeup with every scene with only little drops of blood here and there. Even when the characters have dirt on their face the perfect makeup shines through. In that the movie begins to feel restrained and lacks the power you want this to have.
I never want a movie to be gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous but Jolie feels like she is sidestepping or holding back on the more horrific details to aim for a wider audience. Obviously I don’t believe Jolie held back for monetary gain but more so that she felt this story was important to show to as many people as possible (even the book has two different versions, the regular and the young adult edition) there for she kept the violence and brutality down. Yet in doing that it robs some of the scenes of their potency (which is also in part with her inexperience as a director). “Unbroken” is undoubtedly an important subject matter but so was “Schindler’s List”. Image if Steven Spielberg held back on the more horrific moments so more people could see it? A lot of what that movie was able to accomplish would be lost. I feel this is what happened to “Unbroken”.
Once we get to the camp, many of the scenes feel very “by the numbers”. She obviously has been a part of many film sets and has seen many movies so she knows how to stage a solid scene. Yet here everything feels too standard. There lacks a power and a build up. For instance in the prison camp there is a scene where Louis has to get punched by everyone in the camp. That sounds horrific and unbearable. But, this doesn’t deliver on that. We see him get hit a few times and then it cuts at night to the final one. No shots of the pain in his eyes or real internal struggle of his peers. Imagine how memorable that should be, yet it feels glossed over. Many of the film’s pivotal moments settle on standard and a good enough mentality instead of striving for something better.
Jolie also over plays her same hand too many time. There are several moments where she strives to hit for the inspirational scene; where a character will something really inspiring or say something really negative towards our main hero and the music will cue up as our hero does “the inspiring thing” and oh what a moment as we get up and cheer. But, this happens way too many times in the movie. The story itself is inspiring but eventually it becomes repetitive trying to convince you of how inspiring it is, when we already knew that. Jolie lays on these moments very thick, pounding your head with it time and time again instead of spreading these scenes out and let them speak for themselves.
Jack O’ Connell plays the lead as Louis Zamperini. O’Connell has an old movie star like quality about him that few modern actors have anymore. Good looking, charismatic and talented, O’Connell plays the part very well. Yet once again his performance feels restrained. O’Connell clearly has the talent to be a big star and pull off Oscar worth performances, and somewhere in this performance there is one. However we come back to the same thing, Jolie doesn’t push him. One of the primary jobs of a director is to get good performances out of their actors and while O’Connell does well he could have done better had Jolie pushed him harder.
This movie isn’t bad nor is good. It’s solid and its ambitions are amicable, and well intended. Jolie’s heart is certainly in the right place and you can feel her passion for the project time and time again. However it’s her own direction is what kept it from going any further and being the great film this should have been. I don’t think Angelina Jolie is a bad director (even though I did criticize her a lot in this review). She has the passion for it and does shows hints of the talent here and there behind the camera in this film, and I do look forward to what she does next.