Passion projects are always something to look out for. Sometimes a director is thrown a script and figures, “Eh, why not?” But it’s always something to root for when a director has a passion for the material. Such is the case with Unbroken, the new film from director Angelina Jolie (only her second feature), based on the life of Louis Zamperini, Olympic track star turned war hero/survivor of the sea/prisoner of war survivor. Is that a set of spoilers? I hope not. I’m ashamed to admit it, but prior to hearing about the film, I was uneducated on the life of Louie. I haven’t read the book by Laura Hillenbrand, but I read up on his story enough to know what was to come through the duration of the running time. The movie, directed finely by Jolie, isn’t game changing, nor is it a standout in any way in the long list of biopics, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a perfect case of a story that is stronger than the filmmaking it receives, but strong enough to empower it as a whole.
Louie’s story is one packed with details, too many for Jolie to encase in a feature film with this running time (it’s pretty long as it is). The movie covers Louie’s time as a child (for a little bit), his run with the Olympics (no pun intended), and the meat of his story which has him stranded in the middle of the ocean on a raft Life of Pi style (except there isn’t a Bengal Tiger, just a couple fellow soldiers). After being rescued (if you want to call it that) by the Japanese, Zamperini endures years of being a POW under the cruel hand of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, called “The Bird.” That’s his story, and I trust that no one will be upset with me for going through those minute details because they should be firsthand knowledge. There’s more to the movie than just that and Louie’s life was filled with even more stuff that Jolie didn’t have time to touch on (he became a born-again Christian under the influence of Billy Graham, for starters). But even the year-long experiences that Jolie and the screenwriters manage to transfer to feature length minutes feel important and focused.
As Louie, Jack O’Connell is terrific, delivering a painstaking performance that perfectly captures the sanity of a man who went through being stranded in the middle of the ocean and being a POW. Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, and Finn Wittrock, all giving strong work, portray his fellow soldiers. Domhnall Gleeson, who played in both Calvary and Frank this year (the former I mildly liked, the latter I really liked), is becoming more and more well known, and good thing. He’s excellent in the film, especially in the chunk of the film that takes place in the vast emptiness of the open sea. Fun fact about Domhnall Gleeson which I just now discovered. He is the son of Brendan Gleeson (duh) who played Mad-Eye Moody. Domhnall played Bill Weasley. It’s mind blowing, I know. (Of course you already knew that and now you’re thinking me an idiot. Sorry. Let’s move on.) Jai Courtney, who hasn’t done much to prove himself worth watching, is as good as you could expect him to be in such a limited role. But he’s actually fine, really. Moving on. As “The Bird,” Myavi is brutally horrific. Better known as a singer/songwriter in Japan, here he takes on the acting challenge with serious skill and his scenes with Jack O’Connell are riveting.
As a director, Angelina Jolie is shockingly good, not meaning so good that it’s shocking but rather it’s shocking that she’s actually good. I haven’t seen her debut feature In the Land of Blood and Honey, but I was skeptical about her as a director walking into this. The first scene alone laid those fears to rest as she managed to pull more than one jaw-dropping expression out of me. The opening scene, one of the movie’s few scenes of warfare, involves an aviation battle high up in the sky and Jolie directs with an eye for intensity and claustrophobia. Apart from that scene and few others, the movie doesn’t allow Jolie to make a real case for her directing talents, as most of it is by-the-books biopic fluff. But it’s good fluff, stuff you won’t want to turn away from or dismiss as unnecessary fluff.
Unbroken is long and it sure does feel long, but in retrospect, not too much of it felt like a drag. The scene on the ocean lasts about as long as it should and the POW stuff comes in and lasts for its time and it doesn’t feel rushed or sluggish, so to say that the movie is too long is simply untrue. And let’s be honest, given the amount of stuff accounted for in the book, this could have been a three hour film (I’m glad it wasn’t). Where the script does falter is in the clichés and the by-the-book method of storytelling. Screenwriters William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese do a good enough job at writing the story for the screen, but it doesn’t have as much emotional punch or impact as you would expect from a film of this much passion (not even the Coen brothers’ polishing on the script is recognizable).
But despite all the clichés and the predictability of the script’s fallbacks, Jolie’s passion for the material powers it home. The performances are solid all around, the direction is fine, and the long running time seems to serve somewhat of a purpose. It isn’t as much of an emotional punch as one could expect and it isn’t all that moving, but it’s a well-made film and I found it to be informative and entertaining. Give it a whirl this New Year.
Rated PG-13 for for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Starring Jack O’Connell, Domnhall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Miyavi
Written by William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Directed by Angelina Jolie