Analyzing Unbroken so far after its release, and the day that the Oscar nominations came out, makes this a different kind of analysis:
Unbroken is a great sophomore effort by a young director with limited directorial experience. She happens to be half of the most famous couple on the planet, and will always be remembered as an Oscar-winning actress. It was assumed (one supposes) that between the scope of Unbroken and her star power that this was a guaranteed Oscar nominee, if not winner. It’s gotten three nominations, all in the technical area. It probably won’t win any.
Based on the early life and grueling POW experience of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, the film is bumpy in pace, beautiful to look at, and curiously cool considering the events covered. Legendary non-Oscar-winner cinematographer Roger Deakins (nominated for his 12th time for the film) has created a variety of looks for the film, most of which work for the scene they are recording but which makes the unsteady pace seem that much more so; flashbacks are sepia and dark in the Zamperini home before the war, then it’s crystal clear, then we have a typical blue-grey scene that achieved its apotheosis in the LOTR movies. Then we have some Gone with the Wind shots of orange skies with silhouettes. All of it’s beautiful, and it’s as all over the place as the pace is.
Perhaps there is simply too much story to tell. Young boy becomes world-class runner and makes it into the Olympics with Jesse Owens and der Fuhrer. He gets shot down and endures an excruciating 47 days in a life raft. Then he gets captured by Japanese soldiers and finds himself in a camp run by a sadistic corporal who seems to have a psychosexual fixation on the poor guy and beats him at every opportunity. And that’s only the beginning of his life.
Director Angelina Jolie opens the film well, though the entire beginning is a little Norman Rockwell-ish. But once the plane crashes, she is literally and figuratively lost at sea. Perhaps in an attempt to make us feel the long languishing experience of three men lost in the ocean, Jolie spends far too much time on the experience. Instead of constructing the sequence to make us understand or even feel the weight of thinning bodies and seemingly endless time, the sequence goes on and on and we become emotionally disconnected at the same time we are mentally gathering the data that tells us how very long these guys were suffering.
In fact, “feeling” is something the film is strangely distanced from. We see the horrific action, but the film never gets inside the experience, only showing it to us from the outside. There is so much here to work with that perhaps Jolie, carrying her own reputation for extremes, was reticent to make too much emotional and dramatic hay with situations that were so inherently intense and violent. But throughout, we see alternately beaten, starving, or coal-covered POWs at a bit of a remove, witnessing their agonizing situations from just too far away to be anything but horrified. Jolie even goes so far as to keep the hitting and slicing of fish out of the frame, as well as much of the violence. It’s a welcome change from the rub-your-face-in-it of a Tarantino and so many others, but the loss is one of connection to the depth of pain undergone by the characters.
Happily for the film, there is Jack O’Connor as the lead. This is this year’s star-making performance, and O’Connor has won the Breakthrough Awards from many an organization to prove it. The film is completely his, and he carries it on his ever-thinning shoulders from the moment we see him until the end. He is the one that brings us as close as we get to experiencing the personal drama going on as Zamperini makes it through one abusive beating after another. The film won’t get close enough to the gut-wrenching emotional center of the entire years-long ordeal, but O’Connor carries that angst within his performance and keeps the entire film centered. This wouldn’t be the film it is without him. What the film doesn’t give us, he does. Acting-wise, he should be able to do anything he wants for quite a while.
There were great expectations awards-wise earlier in the year, but really for no good reason other than Jolie’s fame. This is a beautiful looking film that has a few set pieces in it, with a great central performance by a future star. It’s well directed, but not anywhere near expertly so. (For heaven’s sake, it’s the woman’s second feature, and for a second feature, it’s great.) Jolie is a director to watch, though, especially with actors.
There was an attempt to sell this to a faith audience because of Zamperini’s later experience, becoming converted at a Billy Graham rally and extending forgiveness to his captors. In the coulda, shoulda column, it may well have had a much more passionate dramatic arc if it hadn’t ended with his arrival back at the States, but instead with his later meeting with his tormentors. It’s true that the film gives short shrift to his faith, but what little there is is honest and respectful, an increasing rarity in mainstream films these days. Some people of faith were disappointed that what Zamperini felt was the real center of his life story was just barely addressed, but at least his future experiences were addressed—albeit barely—and were done with proper deference to faith and forgiveness.
Unbroken is a good film about endurance that could have been a stronger film about endurance and forgiveness.