Film Review: Unbroken (★★★½)

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.