Unbroken

Movie Review #929

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Premiered in Sydney on November 17, 2014. Nationwide release on December 25, 2014. Biography/Drama/Sport/War. This film is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language. Runs 137 minutes. An American production. Director: Angelina Jolie. Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Book: Laura Hillenbrand. Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John D’Leo, Alex Russell, Talia Mano, and Savannah Lamble.

“UNBROKEN” IS DECENT, BUT IT HAD THE POTENTIAL TO BE SO MUCH MORE.

★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

First thing’s first. “Unbroken” is an uplifting story. It’s channeled well from Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name to the screenplay by nothing short of a supergroup of modern Hollywood screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson. But we’re not so quick to appreciate the screenplay, because Angelina Jolie’s directorial vision has butchered it. A screenplay can ideally be broken down into eight different sequences, and for Jolie, moving from one sequence to another apparently means changing genres. “Unbroken” is a sports movie, then it’s an adventure, then it’s a survival drama, and that’s all in its first half, before it finally settles down and becomes a war epic–the one thing we expected it to be in the first place.

Much of the cast seems just as rigid. For the entire opening sequence, no one seems in line with the screenplay. This is great, classic ’40s dialogue, marvelously watermarked by the Coen brothers, but that kind of dialogue can sound good only with the right actors. Could I paint this picture for you? Try and imagine that nerdy high school kid taking off his glasses, putting on aviator goggles, and using terms like “broads.” It just doesn’t feel right, and as a matter of fact, it makes the movie feel a little fake.

But then again, there’s two great actors that hold this movie up well. One of them is Jack O’Connell. Those who saw him in the British independent drama “Starred Up” last year will likely remember him. That breakthrough gained him smaller recognition, but his performance as the lead in “Unbroken” will no doubt make him a glowing ping on Hollywood radar. He’s outdone, though, by Japanese guitarist-turned-actor Miyavi. In his role as the Imperial Japanese Army sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, he delivers with deliberation and menace, all the while atempting to suppress the fact that his character is a coward. The character seems one-dimensional at first. He says very little, and whenever he does speak, he finishes by whipping whoever he is speaking to. But then the character develops, and Watanabe grows to respect Zamperini, but also to detest him more.

If there’s anything that “Unbroken” is guaranteed to win Oscars for, it’s the technical aspects. The sound mixing is terrific, most especially during the film’s airborne combat scenes. Alexandre Desplat’s score is triumphant and bold, and Coldplay’s “Miracles” closes the film terrifically in its appearance over the credits. Even so, the technical quality of the film isn’t without flaws. While the cinematography during scenes at the Japanese POW camp have an honest, grave look, much of the rest of “Unbroken” looks unbearably upbeat, almost cartoonish. The visuals aren’t terrible, but they are a mixed bag; given his masterful repertoire, “Unbroken” is a career low for cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Angelina Jolie has made no secret about “Unbroken” being her passion project. It’s her second film as a director, following her 2011 independent war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey”. My biggest complaint about “Unbroken” is that it’s just too Hollywooden. The movie tells an uplifting story about a hero who prospered through great hardships, notably in a Japanese POW camp. Jolie emphasizes the inspiring message, and we get it. But as much as her effort emphasizes it, she fails to capture it in all its subtleties; we understand the message, but we don’t feel or absorb it virtually any way. As a result, we feel sort of aloof to Zamperini’s resilient story. As much as Zamperini endures, we can’t stop wondering, “What’s the point?”

Postscript: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have each made World War II movies this past year. “Unbroken”, which Angelina produced and directed, concerns the Pacific Ocean Theater, while “Fury”, which Brad executive produced and starred in, concerns the European Theater. For my review of “Fury”, a much better movie than “Unbroken”, click here.

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