Saturday, February 14, 2015

Unbroken Movie Review

I was afraid Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s second outing behind the camera, would be tacky, maudlin, and sentimental hokum. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. The story of Louis Zamperini was bought by Universal many years ago and finally put into production after Laura Hillenbrand’s book on the subject became a best seller. Zamperini was an American Olympic runner who competed in the 5,000 meter run at the 1936 Berlin games and then flew bombing missions over Japan during WWII. He was shot down over the Pacific, survived for an astounding 45 days adrift on a raft with two other crew from his plane, was picked up by a Japanese ship and placed in a prison camp where he endured brutal conditions and regular beatings at the hands of a pettily jealous guard.


Well, maybe there’s some embellishment to the single brutal antagonist aspect of the story because it makes for a more digestible story. It provides a villain with a face and a name, Watanabe (played by Japanese pop star Takamasa Ishihara). He is a petty and cruel man, resentful of his inability to advance beyond his position as prison warden. His privileged upbringing doesn’t coincide with the idea that high-ranking positions are earned. So he takes his frustrations out on Zamperini, whose semi-celebrity status makes him an easy target.

After a stunning opener depicting a bombing raid, the movie circles back to Zamperini’s childhood growing up in Torrance, California, the son of Italian immigrants. He’s small, he’s weak, he’s not well-liked as a community outsider, but his older brother encourages him to run and to push himself beyond what the thinks are his physical and mental limits. So he becomes a star high school runner and goes off to compete. Though the screenplay, first drafted by Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson and then given a retooling by Joel and Ethan Coen, doesn’t belabor the point too much, it’s obviously intending to demonstrate how his formative years of enduring discomfort prepare him to survive a Japanese POW camp. The script also suffers from several missed opportunities. Some scenes could have provided more texture to the situations. And with a scenario that closely resembles The Bridge on the River Kwai, Watanabe’s character could have been something more interesting than a spoiled young man with a sadistic streak.

Jack O’Connell is a striking new star as Zamperini. The absence of a star presence is one of the film’s best assets. But in general, I would say the casting decisions in terms of physical prowess are questionable. I realize I’m about to place myself on shaky ground here for criticizing a female director’s choices in this regard, but the amount of perfectly hewn male flesh on display is a little bizarre, especially given the majority of Unbroken’s prison setting. The men are muscular, sexy, and well-oiled. Every smudge of dirt looks expertly placed by a makeup artist for maximum rough and rugged effect. Maybe I should make a charitable assumption that Jolie was making a subtle comment on the use of the female body in male-dominated Hollywood. Or maybe she just enjoyed shooting good-looking young men and thought a female audience might add to the box office receipts.

Although I was satisfied with Jolie’s decision to steer away from schmaltz – subject matter like this lends itself easily to pushing certain emotional buttons with well-placed musical cues and camera shots – she seems to have gone too far in the opposite direction. Almost as if it’s an attempt to avoid overplayed emotion, Jolie forgot that movies are supposed to make us feel something about the story and the character. There’s a real coldness to her presentation. Considering she had the tremendous talent of Roger Deakins behind the camera and Alexandre Desplat scoring the film, it’s surprising that it ended up almost soulless. Of course, that’s not to say that the movie doesn’t hit almost every beat that we’ve come to expect from Big Important movies. There are more hero shots than you can count as well as inspirational quotes throughout Zamperini’s youth that are supposed to resound in your and his head during the excruciating third act.

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