Posted on Monday, December 1st, 2014 by Angie Han
Fairly or not, each year a handful of pictures are pegged as probable Academy Awards contenders sight-unseen. Angelina Jolie‘s Louis Zamperini biopic Unbroken was one of those for months, but now the picture has come into clearer focus as the first reviews have hit the web.
The general consensus so far is that Unbroken is good but not great. Critics praised the talent involved, including lead actor Jack O’Connell, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer Alexandre Desplat, and enjoyed the extraordinary fact-based plotline. However, they were less impressed by Jolie’s dutifully conventional, cripplingly respectful approach.
Whether the good outweighs the bad is something we’ll have to find out for ourselves when the film hits theaters December 25. But in the meantime, get the Unbroken early buzz after the jump.
If I describe the superior craftsmanship of “Unbroken” — the stunning cinematography is by the great Roger Deakins, Alexandre Desplat composed the soaring score — in a way that makes the end results seem more like a convertible than a movie, it’s because the film boasts both sheen and efficiency without always delivering an equivalent emotional impact. It’s easier to be awed or impressed by it than moved.
Impeccable craftsmanship and sober restraint have been brought to bear on “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s beautifully wrought but cumulatively underwhelming portrait of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner-turned-U.S. Air Force bombardier who spent 47 days lost at sea and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese military during WWII. In re-creating the nightmarish journey so harrowingly relayed in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography, Jolie has achieved something by turns eminently respectable and respectful to a fault, maintaining an intimate, character-driven focus that, despite the skill of the filmmaking and another superb lead performance from Jack O’Connell, never fully roars to dramatic life. A bit embalmed in its own nobility, it’s an extraordinary story told in dutiful, unexceptional terms, the passionate commitment of all involved rarely achieving gut-level impact.
A great true story is telescoped down to a merely good one in Unbroken. After a dynamite first half-hour, Angelina Jolie’s accomplished second outing as a director slowly looses steam as it chronicles the inhuman dose of suffering endured by Olympic runner Louie Zamperini in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Wonderfully acted by Jack O’Connell in the leading role and guided with a steady hand by Jolie without unduly inflating the heroics or injecting maudlin cliches, this will be a tough film for some to take. But it also has strong appeal as an extraordinary survival story, and Laura Hillenbrand’s first-rate book that inspired it has not been on the best-seller lists for four years for nothing.
Though apparently keen to stick to the facts, Jolie’s stolidly conventional approach to the material hardly freshens it up. (Rather surreally, the first names on the script credits are Joel and Ethan Coen, but I can’t believe they would ever have sanctioned the you’re-gonna-be-somebody cliches that infest much of the early part of the film.) O’Connell, so eye-catching in the likes of ’71, as well as Starred Up, makes an impressive step up to the Hollywood big leagues, but the flared-nostril emoting required of him tends to swamp the wary-eyed everymannishness of his recent roles.
The movie finally exacerbates its point through overstatement, with its depiction of Zamperini’s valiant ability to struggle forward amid ongoing persecution reaching Christ-like proportions by the closing act. It’s hard not to get the feeling that Jolie’s become too enamored of her subject to portray him as a human being. That perception is further hindered by a lack of sophisticated Japanese characters on par with the Americans; though Miyavi’s hardened sergeant rectifies the problem to some extent, the rest of his peers are relegated to anonymous goons.
But when Louie’s self-belief is the only subject on screen, which is gormlessly often, Jolie presses her young lead into a lot of face-pulling, anguished grimaces and screams of violent elation. We’re not dragged deeply into either a man’s soul or his character.
Besides, the last part of Hillenbrand’s book – about Louie’s obsession with inflicting a bloody revenge on his tormentor – is wholly beyond the film’s remit. This more troubling layer to his story is sliced off, ruthlessly cauterised. To make a purely consoling myth out of his life, Louie must simply believe, triumph and survive, as inspirationally as possible, and with no inner contradictions to spike the brew. Jolie has made a 137-minute long film that gets us barely further than a poster, and O’Connell is the poster-boy.
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With some big names behind the camera and lesser known talents on screen, Angelina Jolie’s eagerly anticipated Unbroken turns out to be a somber and reverential – perhaps a bit too reverential for its own dramatic good – account of the early life of Louie Zamperini, the American Olympic athlete who survived more than two years in World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Already being seen as a leading Oscar contender thanks to its impressive pedigree and uplifting true story, this lengthy drama will probably need awards season help if is to become more than a mid-level box officer performer.