Movie a Day Blog can’t exactly feel sorry for Angelina Jolie, but things have not been going her way. First she gets dissed in hacked Sony emails by producer Scott Rudin, who rarely has a good word to say about anyone.
Then her early-Oscar-favorite films UNBROKEN (2014, Theatrical) loses all of its gas, and unlike its progenitor, seems unlikely to win or even compete in the Academy Award race except in minor categories.
The fact that Jolie is that rarest of species, a female movie director, and one who pulled off an action-packed $65 million production in drastically different Australian locations, is given little attention. Even in what should be her year of glory as a major director, Jolie is eclipsed by SELMA (2014) and its guiding light Ava DuVernay, who may be the first black female director nominated for an Oscar.
Much of the word of mouth I heard about UNBROKEN was also negative, so I was pleasantly surprised by what an entertaining and solidly made film it is, enlivened by a sturdy performance in the lead role by Jolie discovery Jack O’Connell, although he’s no Jake Gyllenhaal.
The film is consistently interesting and compelling for most of its overlong 137 minutes, and only in its pretentious conclusion to the trials of the real-life Louis Zamperini does she tip the balance into stereotypical Hollywood hagiographic bathos.
Zamperini is a classic American character, the little guy who could. Inspired by his brother’s homily, “If you can take it, you can make it,” he becomes a nationally renowned high school sprinter, and that gets him a shot at the Olympic trials in 1936 Berlin. He doesn’t win, but he comes back a minor celebrity and all too soon, an Air Force bombardier in the Pacific front of World War II.
Jolie handles these miles of exposition in a sure-handed and inclusive way, and O’Connell, while not a remarkable performer in the same way as the early Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey, presents believably a regular guy who was determined to rise to any challenge, refused to be beaten down and never gave up. These sound like comic book heroic qualities but in the hands of Jolie and O’Connell, they register strongly.
The problems with UNBROKEN begin with O’Connell’s arrival in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the outskirts of Tokyo near the end of the war. Their imprisonment also saved their lives, since O’Connell and the survivors of his flight crew are marooned at sea for weeks, only to be rescued by their enemy. The eerie proximity to Tokyo (the camp residents are marched through a burned-out city after Tokyo’s fire bombing) is never taken advantage of; it’s difficult to imagine a comparable camp outside Washington, D.C. or New York City.
The casting of Japanese actor Takamasa Ishihara proves fatal to the film, since his single-minded persecution of O’Connell seems both unmotivated and almost sexual in nature. Ishihara possesses a feminine beauty, and his obsession with O’Connell goes over the top, aided and abetted by the usually reliable composer Alex Desplat, who here turns all bombastic and super-emotional in the final resistance of O’Connell, an act that defies all authority, including the Japanese’s.
UNBROKEN seems out of control at its end, and Jolie invited controversy by completely omitting the other salient event in Zamperini’s life, his born-again conversion at a Billy Graham Crusade rally. It would seem fitting that an individual who had been through the trials of Job could finally embrace God in a personal way, and it also seems that Jolie and her screenwriters, who include the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson, some of the best writers working in Hollywood, hewed the line of political correctness and kept religion out of the mix.
Too bad, it might have given UNBROKEN a more realistic and less bathetic conclusion. Up until the unnecessary final half hour, Jolie and her cohorts had me, but unlike Zamperini, she won a few battles, but lost the war.