Awards Profile: Unbroken

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Directed By: Angelina Jolie
Written By: Joel & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson (Based on the Laura Hillenbrand biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption)

Cast: Jack O’ Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Miyavi, Finn Wittrock, Alex Russell, Luke Treadaway, John Magaro, and Jordan Patrick Smith

Synopsis (From IMDB): “A chronicle of the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II.”

Why it Could Succeed: One of the biggest female movie stars in the world, Angelina Jolie can disappear from the movie scene for a long period of time and come back with as much salivating support from fans as when she left. I’d even venture to guess that Jolie’s grand return to film will be one of the biggest selling points of Unbroken, despite not starring in it. You see, folks, for only the second time in her career, Jolie is taking off the makeup and strapping on her work boots — she’ll be directing this passion project of hers with the assistance of an extremely laudable group of screenwriters (Coens, anyone?), a cast filled with some of the most promising up-and-comers, and a cinematographer of legendary proportions, Mr. Roger “Oscar-less” Deakins.

Unlike the War in Iraq/Afghanistan, WWII seems to dominate the box office like no other period of worldly conflict, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for Jolie’s film to find success, especially given the fact that distributing studio Universal has had a consistent outpour of hits since 2012’s Les Misérables. Their hot streak is nowhere near over. Jolie’s close ties to the subject at the center of this WWII drama, POW survivor and former Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini (who is still alive at age 97!), adds an emotional reinforcement to the film that will no doubt play a major part in the upcoming awards campaign. Given her dedication to getting this incredible hero’s story just right, you can pretty much assume Jolie will go for both the jugular and heart in equal measure. In other words, you better run to Costco and start loading up on Kleenex before it’s too late.

It also doesn’t hurt matters that Unbroken is adapted from a biography written by non-fiction author Laura Hillenbrand, who if you remember penned Seabiscuit, the book that was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie which competed for the “Best Picture” prize in 2004. HIllenbrand’s work is no stranger to the Academy Awards, so don’t be surprised if her second novel also becomes an Oscar fixation. All these ingredients that make up Unbroken, who’ve individually gone over well with AMPAS in the past, are bound to swoon voters once more. Also, don’t for a second think Angelina Jolie’s Honorary Oscar is going to stop the Academy from heaping more accolades on this very deserving thespian/humanitarian.

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

Why it Could Fail: Although Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut In the Land of Bloody and Honey garnered a few accolades — notably a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Foreign Language Film” — critics seemed divided and the movie itself flat-out bombed, earning a paltry $303,000 against its $13 million budget. Many critics felt that despite her sincerity, Jolie might have embellished parts of the Bosnian War a tad too much in order to get her point across, unwilling to add in shades of grey for historical clarity. One wonders if Jolie might again be so involved in her work that all else — including historical accuracy and fair character depictions — will come secondary. There’s such a thing as getting too close to your subject of interest; you risk betraying the integrity of the story because you’re afraid of upsetting your dear friend. It’ll be interesting to see how Jolie’s tight bond with Louis Zamperini affects Unbroken’s finished product.

Another potential caveat this project faces is being compared to David Ayer’s Fury and Jonathan Tiplitzky’s The Railway Man, two WWII films that will hit U.S. theaters before Jolie’s Unbroken. Specifically in the case of The Railway Man, the two movies similarly deal with the mental and physical torture suffered by POWs in Japanese internment camps. Both protagonists are young, strapping lads with a bright future ahead of them until war crosses their paths and their lives become daily doses of hell. Audiences and Academy voters don’t want to feel like they’re seeing the same movie twice (even 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line felt like completely separate entities), and they sure might if the same pretty-boy-officer-faces-Japanese-torture narrative becomes the focal point of both war dramas. Fury, meanwhile, stars Jolie’s husband, Brad Pitt, and will likely be the bigger financial success of the two given its patriot-appropriate release and lack of stiff holiday competition (Unbroken will have Smaug breathing fire down on it courtesy of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again, not to mention Disney’s Into the Woods tapping into the family market that’s key to winning Christmas Day).

Will AMPAS give the young Jack O'Connell a chance to sprint to the "Best Actor" award
Will AMPAS give the young Jack O’Connell a chance to sprint to the “Best Actor” award?

Awards Speculation: It’s no doubt crossed people’s minds that if Angelina Jolie were to win Best Director and Best Picture for Unbroken, she’d be the second female ever to do so…and once again with a war film. There’s a bittersweet feeling that emerges upon this realization. On the one hand, I would love to see Jolie win if her work was stellar and fully deserving of cinema’s highest prize. On the other, it doesn’t for one minute escape the sad realization that this would be the second time a woman wins “Best Picture” for a film belonging to a male-centric genre, with male characters leading the narrative charge (see: Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker). For the record, I in no way disapprove of the direction Jolie took on her second directorial effort, but I do believe that working in a genre beloved by the old, white male majority that dominates AMPAS’ current membership is extremely advantageous. If Jolie, let’s say, were to direct a romantic comedy or female-driven drama, her stepping stones to the Oscar ceremony would be wider apart than they currently are with Unbroken.

Let’s be clear: Kathryn Bigalow’s historical win in 2010 for The Hurt Locker increases the chance that Jolie will have the same level of success on Oscar Sunday, 2015. The Coen Bros., recently snubbed for their work on Inside Llewyn Davis, will likely be given the “Oops…we’re sorry!” treatment for their Unbroken screenplay, and many are already claiming 2015 as the year that Roger Deakins will finally win his first Oscar. There’s too many awards baity factors in this project to simply shrug off, and if it’s as viscerally and emotionally captivating as we’re being led to believe, Unbroken could very well be next recipient of the “Best Picture” prize. Furthermore, loud, action-heavy war films — especially if they’re on Oscar’s radar — do pretty well in below-the-line categories.

The biggest question mark will be for the acting nods, since we all know that without a SAG nomination, your “Best Picture” prospects are pretty much dead in the water. Jack O’Connell could easily deliver one of the many “great breakthrough performances by a young male performer under 25” that ends up not being recognized by the Academy. Yet, these Hurt Locker comparisons are eating away at me and I can’t help but feel O’Connell could pull a Jeremy Renner and find himself in the “Best Actor” lineup. Winning? Now that’s crazy talk at this point in time. If AMPAS wants to show it appreciates Asian performances more than history states it does (little to none, by the way), perhaps Japanese rock singer-turned-actor Miyavi might be a “Supporting Actor” contender for his work as the abusive Sergeant Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, who ran the interment camp Zamperini was imprisoned in. Also, let’s not forget Garrett Hedlund in that same category, who’s been subtly and slowly rising through the ranks among the current crop of “great” next-gen actors. All in all, I’d say the incomparable Angelina Jolie has quite the Oscar contender on her hands if we’re simply looking at current face value. Let’s hope the final product is the worth the pre-season buzz.

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director — Angelina Jolie
Best Actor — Jack O’Connell
Best Supporting Actor — Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Domhnall Gleeson
Best Adapted Screenplay — The Coens, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson
Best Film Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Hairstyling and Makeup
Best Visual Effects
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing