In recent years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has had an unceasing infatuation for the historical drama; period pieces centered on a protagonist who must overcome some – or several – obstacles before he eventually triumphs. It’s come to the point where it’s easy to tell which films Oscar voters will immediately fall head over heels for because the Academy’s consistently conservative nature has become easy to predict.
Many people – this critic included – would like to see the Academy become more inclusive of all genres on a more even playing field. Not since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King went 11-for-11 on Oscar night in 2005 has such a blockbuster and crowd pleaser also had the honor of taking home the coveted Best Picture honor, although many a film have certainly been deserving. It’s become somewhat frustrating for many people.
That being said, Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort – stronger than her first on all counts, and then some – fits all the traits necessary for being in the running for Best Picture. It’s historical. It’s a period piece. It endures hopelessness which leads to triumph. And bonus points – it’s a true story.
What sets Unbroken apart from other clichéd films of its genre is that its story is so well crafted and told that it would be deserving of being named the best film of 2014.
Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic runner who is sent to war against Japan, and eventually is a prisoner of the enemy. He endures a tormenting amount of abuse at the hands of his captors – one nemesis, to be specific – as he and his comrades do their absolute best to exact revenge – by living to see another day.
Unbroken is tense from the opening sequence and that mood lingers throughout, our only solace being flashbacks to Louis’ life before the war, when he represented his country in a different way. Jolie strives for two hours to make Louis’ ordeal just as painful for us as it is for him, and she succeeds on all fronts. It isn’t easy to sit through some of Unbroken’s more unforgiving scenes, and damn near impossible to not sympathize with what the POWs are going through.
Although the way we get there is by no means comfortable – a credit to Jolie’s direction – by the time the credits roll it becomes clear that she has created an endearing tribute to the power of the human spirit. Unbroken is as hopeless as it is uplifting, as powerful as it is straightforward, and as honest as Louis himself.
The strength of the film’s early half is how it manages to make coherence out of the flashbacks to Louis growing up as a person and as an athlete, in what may seem as a whole other movie entirely due to his situation. While some directors may have been satisfied as simply going through the motions and showing what Louis did before the war, Jolie shows with flawless storytelling how Louis the soldier came to be. His life was never short of overcoming obstacles, as the flashbacks show.
The film is at times unapologetically bleak and daunting, each scene and method of torture to Louis raising the emotional stakes further and further, but make no mistake that it pays off in the end. When Louis finally proves himself to be stronger than his captors, it’s hard not to stand and applaud. That’s a credit to Jolie’s direction and accomplished vision as much as it is to Joel and Ethan Coen, who have strayed from their usual style of cinema to deliver their most epic screenplay yet.
Jolie makes sure to give intimacy to every character, but the humanity she gives Louis is on a whole other level. You become fully invested in him from the start, and remain that way through his trials, which at one point shows him literally taking up his cross. Through it all he is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying characters to come out of 2014.
Although the film’s bookend acts are dutiful in keeping the audience’s attention, the middle act begins to lag a bit as some of the film’s more grisly details mount up and the plot becomes impatient with itself, and us along with it. The pace slows down a bit too much for a short stretch as Jolie attempts to build a meaningful relationship between Louie and his primary tormenter, in a way that doesn’t truly become so until the very end. Thankfully, once we get a change in scenery things start to pick up again.
Louis is played impeccably by Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up) in a role more physical than many we’ll see this year. He effortlessly translates his pain into a sense the audience also experiences, and he is written in such a way that O’Connell is able to become the type of person that we can easily root for.
In the end, Unbroken is a story that starts and ends with Louis, and that becomes apparent with how the film prioritizes different triumphs in the film’s third act. It is a biopic beyond anything else, one which inspires as much as it horrifies and teaches us as much about the darkness as it does the light that we sometimes take for granted.
In a Nutshell
Well-written, well-acted, and excellently directed by one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, Unbroken sets forth the daunting task of enduring the torments that Louis is forced to go through, and it pays off in a profound and moving way.
8.5 / 10
Unbroken is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihira, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock
Directed by Angelina Jolie
Best Directing – Angelina Jolie
Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing