I’ve been saving this review for Globes week, until the dust had settled on most other critiques. Rarely have I witnessed such shameful disregard for an artist’s work. Boy, did you screw up, critics.
There is an art to critiquing film; one I categorized at the head of my maligning The Theory of Everything – one of 2014’s prime failures, in my humble opinion. And that is just it: it’s an opinion. Plenty of people believe the Hawking biopic to be one of the year’s best, and I cannot fault them for that. Alternately, however infrequently, a film comes along that critics are destined to denigrate — they’ve already made their mind up before the first tones of the theme music hit their ears. In fact, I’d wager most of these said scribes already had most of their coverage written before sitting down to view Unbroken: popcorn in one hand, Quick Quotes Quill in the other. No one had to tell me that a film directed by the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” would be rotten on the Tomato Meter; it was scripted. But – as I wear my dissenting coat of many colors with pride — I’m here to tell you the critics are wrong. Angelina Jolie is a director, she has arrived. Furthermore, anyone standing in her way is just plain jealous.
Based on the best-selling biography of Louis Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken chronicles the early life of the Torrance Tornado, specifically his collegiate running career, his appearance in the 5000-meter distance event at the 1936 Olympics, and his work as a bombardier in World War II. It is his continual adversity during the war involving a plane crash, surviving at sea for forty-seven days, and subsequently being captured as a Prisoner of War in Japan where most of the drama plays. Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) encounters a series of unfortunate events, pitting him finally against Musihiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), his antithesis, and in many ways his mirror, in war and spirit.
Let me be clear: Unbroken is not garnering vitriol on the whole, as the reviews are mostly mixed. Either people “like” the film or they politely tear it apart for its hokey screenplay, overarching themes of the triumph of will, and for poor direction on Jolie’s part. The main critique on Jolie’s direction seems to stem from what Richard Roeper describes as “suffering from self-conscious nobility.” Critics knock the direction for not taking chances, with which I profoundly disagree. This is a very classic script based on the idea that there exist true heroes and true evil, forever pitted against each other. Yes, the script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson is a by-the-numbers affair, but the first-time director chooses such innovative shots and dramatic lighting that the work is elevated to highlight the introspective and claustrophobic nature of its characters. Moreover, once you dive a bit deeper than the surface of the thing, you can see that the simplicity is a mask for a much broader story of a man suffering the loss of ideals and discovering his true purpose in life. Unbroken is a tale of rebirth and maturation, with classic religious and loyalist themes.
Jolie focuses on the inner struggles of even the most peripheral individuals, including an unnamed Irish-American soldier who must abuse Zamperini in a sadistic punishment by the Bird. As a fellow immigrant, the war within the man — who must understand the plight of his intended target — wears on his face and movements. It’s a moment I doubt everyone will notice, but it is a testament to the great care and work the director put into this film. Jolie’s ability to garner outstanding performances by newcomers Jack O’Connell and Takamasa Ishihara is a feat matched by very few of her contemporaries.
The make-up and production design led by Nik Dorning and Jon Hutman, respectively, are just tremendous. The cast obviously put their bodies through hell for realism, and the attention to detail for the conditions in which the characters are thrown is maliciously raw. It is one of those films that is so visceral, you feel you are walking right into history. Nonetheless, Unbroken remains a supremely optimistic film, setting it far apart than recent wartime films like Fury, the Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty. This is not to say Unbroken is better or worse…just different, and in a currently climate of purported realism, is that not interesting?
The religious overtones are heavy at times; although, that is not really a surprise for a film about a man who has dedicated his life to exhibiting the true principles of Christianity, and I find it refreshing. No hand needed to reach from the screen and slap you with its message – Zamperini simply is a man of God. In a scene destined for the coverbox, Louis must hoist a bar above his head after being literally beaten down and weakened. It is in this moment that he reaches his greatest triumph and strength, where he matches the anger and brutality of his captor. In that allegory, however, it is not just Wantanabe he his besting – it’s his main adversary – himself. Doubt. I am sure the depth of this scene is lost on most; many viewers will dismiss it as overly symbolic or hackneyed. Therein lies the cynical climate with which we view films.
If you doubt the double standard with which this film is viewed, let me ask you this. If Unbroken had been directed by a man, even one with as much “star power” as Angelina Jolie, say George Clooney or Ryan Gosling, would you be surprised to see it on a list of this 2014’s best? If Jolie was considered a failure as an actress, or any less beautiful would we hold her to such a standard? I tell you that I held her at as high a standard of any director who dares to take my time. And she soared.
Film Grade: B
Direction by Ms. Jolie: A-