Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Alex Russell, John D'Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, Maddalena Ischiale
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Directed by: Angelina Jolie
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Language: English, Italian, Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 137
Date: 12/25/2014

Unbroken (2014)

1 Star (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken should have been called "Unendurable." It has been offered up as an awards-season movie, a serious biopic about a heroic figure, and a potential Oscar candidate. If not for this smokescreen, it would be getting more of a trouncing from critics. Rather than one of the best movies of the year, it's better qualified for the other list. It's the Oscar-season equivalent of torture porn.

The movie tells the story of Olympic distance runner Louie Zamperini (1917-2014). He ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then enlisted to fight in WWII. He became a second lieutenant in the Air Force. In 1943, his plane went down in the ocean, and he and two crew members were adrift in a life raft for 47 days. When they reached land they were taken prisoner by the Japanese and held until the end of the war.

It's a good story, of course. One of its aspects is how Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell) latched onto God to help him survive the camps, but Unbroken has no spiritual quality to it. Instead, Jolie focuses on the sheer, physical misery and torture of the life raft and the prison camps. (Even the running sequences are filled with pain.) A great filmmaker, like Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List, understands how to tell a difficult story using subtle changes in rhythm, such as giving the audience little rest breaks and rewards before plunging further into the wretchedness. Two other recent stranded-on-a-life-raft movies, Life of Pi and All Is Lost, did likewise. Conversely, on Unbroken, Jolie simply plunges into the wretchedness and never comes up. There's something disturbingly masochistic about her approach.

One critic jokingly noticed that Jolie seems to paint each of her sequences like previous Oscar-winners for Best Picture. This one looks like Chariots of Fire; this one looks like The Bridge on the River Kwai; this one looks like Platoon, etc. She has clearly always been an actress (and a filmmaker, on her previous dud In the Land of Blood and Honey) with an eye on prestige and reward. She wishes to send messages, to save people. That's fine, but to be a storyteller is to find a balance between telling the story and wrapping the message inside.

For example, after suffering through 137 minutes of Unbroken, Zamperini never comes across as a person. We have no idea who he really is. He's a symbol that we can't ever connect to on a personal level. Moreover, the movie tries to build some kind of weird relationship between Zamperini and his captor, a Japanese brat nicknamed "The Bird" (played by rock star Miyavi). The Bird keeps insisting that they have things in common, but he's mainly stuck in the role of a cackling one-dimensional villain (doing things like forcing every man in the prison to punch Zamperini) and they never connect.

Rounding out my gaping disbelief of this entire movie comes the realization that the screenplay is partly credited to the Coen brothers. That's Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the very finest writers and directors alive today. How? How is this possible? Their co-writer is the talented Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County). However the fourth writer is William Nicholson, whose last four films (Gladiator, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Les Misérables, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) have all been awful award-contenders, so maybe that helps explain things. It's based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, whose Seabiscuit resulted in a Best Picture nomination. Finally, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins somehow signed up to photograph all this visual agony. Maybe he owed somebody a favor.

Unbroken is opening on Christmas Day alongside eight or nine much more worthy films, and I feel sorry for the folks that accidentally choose this one as their day's viewing pleasure.

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