Film Review: Unbroken (★★★½)

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Angelina Jolie and the real-life POW survivor, Louis Zamperini.

unbrokenThere are so many things to admire when looking upon Angelina Jolie‘s English language directorial debut.  “Unbroken” checks most of the boxes of a great film.  Inspiring, moving, and emotionally resonate, Jolie’s epic lands on the back end of the film year and becomes an instant contender. Pulling out the big guns with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a Sound team that includes five-time Oscar nominee Frank A. Montaño (“Gladiator”), Emmy-nominee Jon Taylor (“Apollo 11”), Production Sound Mixer David Lee, BAFTA winner Becky Sullivan (“The Fugitive”), and MPSE Winner Andrew DeCristofaro (“To the Arctic 3D”), both technical aspects of the film are among the very best seen, and heard in 2014.  “Unbroken” is an uplifting, daunting experience, telling the story of a man who fought against impossible odds to survive.  A worldly film that speaks to so much happening today.

The screenplay, which went through three drafts by William Nicholson, Richard LaGravenese, and Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, is the film’s biggest hiccup.  The first half of the film is entrenched, marvelous even, focusing on the survival and story of Louis Zamperini.  The Olympic story, as you’d expect, is secondary to our tale.  Playing in flashbacks from Zamperini on a flight mission, then to his early days as a child, rambunctious and being inspired by his older brother to join the track team.  Jolie focuses on the world around Zamperini in those early scenes.  Introducing an Italian-immigrant mother, praying for her son’s safety and guidance, along with a disciplinarian father.  You have moments in those early scenes that call back to “Forrest Gump,” (still unsure if that’s a compliment or not) but the visual aesthetics are well positioned by DP Roger Deakins.  Gorgeous to look at 100% of the time.

The performances are fully developed.  Jack O’Connell, as Louis Zamperini, provides another example of a killer breakout year with other performances in “Starred Up” and “’71.”  His dedication to the role is undeniable, losing weight, and managing to elevate some of the more stagnant scenes.  He’s an exciting actor to watch.  Domhnall Gleeson‘s turn as Phil, Louis’ “boat-companion,” is truly remarkable.  I do wish we got a split story of Louis and Phil’s journey.  There’s a beautiful dynamic that the two have, and that could have been explored. I think it’s just a missed opportunity.

unbroken_imageThe second half of the film is dominated by the aura and presence of Miyavi (or if you prefer Takamasa Ishiara) as the diabolical Mutsushiro Watanabe, commanding officer of the concentration camp where Louis is imprisoned.  Just one year after Michael Fassbender scored an Oscar nomination for “12 Years a Slave,” a role that is similar in structure and similar by aura, Miyavi creates a multi-layered man, with so many things going on inside, aching for an explanation for the audience.  Not everything will be answered, but he feels the most satisfying of every character on screen.  A Supporting Actor contender has emerged in Miyavi.  A breakout performance.

Angelina Jolie has a firm hand on what is happening on-screen.  Rumors have made their rounds that there is a director’s cut, likely about 30 minutes longer.  I have to imagine that if true, that is the version that feels more complete.  The last quarter is problematic, rushed even, and I imagine that’s where many of the cuts were made.  Jolie’s abilities as a filmmaker are way above par for a person on their second feature film.  If we look at many director’s second outings, I don’t think you’d find to many as polished or confident as Jolie is behind the camera.  She doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the story.  “Unbroken” is the most fitting title of any story delivered this year.  Encompassing everything that this film is about.

Oscar race questions?  Thought you’d never ask.  Easy pick for a Best Picture nomination with all the crafts its likely to eat up including Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat.  In a thin Adapted Screenplay race, the four-man writing team should find wiggle room, and in a just world, Miyavi should join the Supporting Actor contenders and score his first Academy Award nomination.  Angelina Jolie will gain lots of respect for what she has constructed.  If anything, this begins the narrative and excitement for her next feature “By the Sea” with hubby Brad Pitt.

Unbroken” is a fascinating deconstruction of a man beaten to his core.  An enlightening story, featuring star-making performances, and an abundance of masterclass filmmaking techniques.  The Oscar race continues.

Unbroken” opens in theaters on Christmas Day and is distributed by Universal Pictures.

  • Kyle

    I’m looking forward to it, but at the same time, wow, it’s at 33% on RT, and I know it’s only 7 reviews, but damn.

    • Raymond Watt

      Last time I checked it was 50% and I expect it to get higher.

  • Tom

    It’s at 50% right now on RT. Gotta be patient with it, the embargo just got lifted, and more will come out in next few days. I see this probably mid to high 80’s when all said and done. Thank You Clayton for this review, as a big fan of the book I’m excited about this movie, but was getting a little worried the longer it came, but what you said has made me feel much more confident in the film.

    • JMZ

      What a surprise, I knew Unbroken would suffer through the same bias and ugliness as Fury did when the embargo lifted.

      Any high profile Pitt or Jolie movie has to endure this every year. Their movies always have to overcome a ridiculous backlash due to an ongoing unfounded agenda. The movie messageboards are bombarded with trolls, haters, and plants from certain camps to spread negativity & bad buzz. Variety panning Fury and Unbroken ruthlessly is really suspect.

      The criticism and standards are going to be extra harsh given that Jolie directed this and there are people in the industry who don’t want her to be nominated for Best Director. There are strong anti-campaigns against both Fury and Unbroken.

      It is a shame because Fury and Unbroken are both outstanding movies with incredible production values & strong compelling performances from the cast.

      Jack O’Connell deserves to be nominated for Best Actor. He is a revelation.
      I personally thought it was the strongest lead performance for a male in 2014.

      Some of the negative reviews against Unbroken are absurd and they are seriously reaching to nitpick at any perceived flaw. The movie doesn’t follow the conventional narrative structure of a biopic or World War 2 movie. Some journalists appear to be trashing the movie for not being as epic or perfect as they want it to be. They keep complaining about how arduous it is and act like Louis’s personal struggles weren’t fleshed out enough when the film is actually a visceral experience of his pain and how he overcame these obstacles.

      I found it to be inspirational without being overly sentimental.

      Yet these same standards are not being applied towards The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything which followed a more by the numbers approach. It puzzles me that the critics who embraced those “safer” films are degrading Unbroken because it seems like they are applying a much higher standard for Unbroken.

      People need to understand the theme and focus of Unbroken is on Louis’s survival through certain hardships. It is not meant to be an all-encompassing biopic or docudrama about World World 2. I agree that it was master class filmmaking. The screenplay was surprisingly the weakest aspect, I agree with that legit criticism but the strong performances and everything else elevated the film.

      There are aggressive factions who worked hard to sink Fury’s chances in the Oscar Race and it is even worse for Unbroken. I am concerned because the movie doesn’t have the luxury of time that Fury had to overcome the unfounded backlash.

      I think it would be a cinematic crime if Unbroken didn’t make the cut in the awards race.

    • I just got the book and I’m dying to read it now. I feel like there’s more in there that wasn’t put on screen.

      • Tom

        I Think You’ll Really Like it, Obviously not spoiling, but I found the chapters describing his time on life raft became a little tedious, but that’s pretty much it

  • JMZ

    Louis was NOT pretentious. I have to make that correction.

  • Hank Rose

    This looks like a valiant effort to tell the tale of a rare war survivor. But it remains to be seen whether it will earn industry buzz by not conforming to usual unsung underdog depictions. The mere idea that Hollywood would not even fund this film is a hint that it may also snub it come awards time. In short, this movie will go unnoticed because it was about an Italian-American from an ethnic minority group that Hollywood prefers to marginalize or stereotype in the movies. Sad but true.

  • Bailey

    I’ve noticed this misspelling in several places on this site in the past. I though you might like to know that Miyavi’s family name is actually ‘Ishihara,’ not ‘Ishiara.’ 🙂

  • toastie postie

    This was a wonderful movie. If it had been directed by someone else, it would have gotten an Oscar nod and many more awards. Too many jealous people in Hollywood. Of course if it had been directed by someone else(like a guy) I don’t think it would have been as good. I ‘m looking forward to more Jolie directed movies. Feel bad for the two charismatic male actors also. Especially Miyavi. He and Jack were great! Hard subject matter. Easily could have been a trilogy with so much material.