Overview: The trouble-making son of Italian immigrants grows to become an American Olympic hero and a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II. Universal Pictures; 2014; 137 Minutes; Rated PG-13.
Unexpected: Perhaps the greatest strength to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken comes by way of the camera work of Roger Deakins. Deakins’ standard and expected excellence elevates this film with an artistic clarity that adds an element of witness to this popular true story. The film’s strongest stretches are established when Louie Zamperini’s unbroken chain of relentless struggle and miraculous survival is uninfluenced and uninterrupted by narrative device. Deakins strings together frames that are almost hyper-real, and, in doing so, allows the audience to carry the weight of his experience without narrative manipulation.
Unprepared: If you’ve paid attention to the echo chamber of internet film criticism for longer than ten minutes at any point in 2014, you’ve probably heard by now that Jack O’Connell is going to be a star. In Unbroken, he earns and solidifies this prediction. There is a surprising measure of patience and reserve displayed in O’Connell’s unassuming portrayal of a figure central to a powerful story. Perhaps more unforeseeable are the supporting performances of Garrett Hedlund as John Fitzgerald and Domhall Gleeson as Russell “Phil” Phillips. As soldiers who are respectively imprisoned and marooned with Zamperini, Fitzgerald and Philllips help contextualize the humanity of a character who struggles to establish it on his own.
Un-perfect: This story is one that is very close to the heart of Director Angelina Jolie. Early on, her compassion for Zamperini is overly evident and serves as a directorial handicap. Jolie feels hesitant to paint her hero in complex colors, with both his troubled past and heroic accomplishments feeling plastic, rigid, and paint-by-numbers. The editing and scene arrangement is clunky, the dialogue is very… stock. As a result, the stronger second half of the film still rings a little hollow, as the relentless flood of bad fortune falls upon a character with whom a connection hasn’t yet been fairly earned. Eventually, Unbroken almost earns the reverence that Jolie does not, the reverence which she may have taken for granted, given that she possessed it before she started filming. There is an outstanding piece of movie in Unbroken, and it exists between Jolie’s early miscalculations and the poor judgment of the script (penned by a team lead by Joel and Ethan Coen), as it uses late scenes in a befuddling effort to establish a plain text good guy/bad guy relationship between Zamperini and his main captor Matsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe.
Unbroken: Some true stories are so universal and powerful that they need not be perfect in their telling to be successful. Unbroken is an imperfect movie, but one that I am happy to have seen made.