There are two ways to fix Angelina Jolie’s disappointing second feature, the World War II set biopic Unbroken: cut half the movie or scrap this entirely to tell the story the right way. It’s admittedly gorgeous, well acted, impeccably designed, and a ton of top notch talents have been enlisted to create a film designed on a molecular level to sweep every category at the Oscars. None of that gloss and effort, however, can cover up a complete lack of focus on Jolie’s part because she doesn’t seem to ever know what story she wants to tell, alternating between brutally unfounded austerity or on-the-nose and obvious feel-good posturing.
Based on a non-fiction book by Seabiscuit writer Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the story of former U.S. track Olympian Louis Zamperini (played by up and coming Irish actor Jack O’Connell). After breaking a world record in the now legendary German Olympics prior to the U.S. entering the war in Europe and Asia, Zamperini became a bombardier for the allies, surviving at sea following a deadly plane crash for 47 days. Eventually happened upon by a Japanese ship, Zamperini’s situation only worsened as a captive at a P.O.W. camp.
Jolie starts her film off cranked fully to 11, with a gorgeously realized dogfight over the skies of the pacific. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who again, delivers note perfect work for which he probably still won’t win an Oscar). It’s visceral, jolting, a great way to start a film. Then, not long after it becomes apparent that the film will start off with a fractured narrative that isn’t going anywhere in a hurry (only to abandon its non-linear structure after about 40 minutes) do you realize that the film NEEDS to start at this point because there would be no logical other way to goose the audience into sticking with the film. The gorgeous opening is a bait-and-switch incentive that hints that more of the same will come. It never does.
Instead the film languishes for the bit looking back on Louis’ childhood and the struggles growing up Italian with immigrant parents in the dustbowl of the Great Depression, which is handled respectfully but never has any bearing on anything to follow. Then there’s a bit with his fellow soldiers. Then the crash. Then about 20 minutes where Louis attempts to stay alive alongside two crash survivors (Domnhall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock), which at the very least includes a pretty badass moment where the men in a fit of desperation beat a man eating shark to death with their bare hands. Then they get to the camp, and despite the already wonky narrative mechanics, the film finally seems to be getting to some sort of point… about 70 minutes into the film and with about 70 minutes left to go. Half of the film could be condensed to about 15 minutes, nothing would be lost, and it still wouldn’t have any bearing on anything left to come.
Even at the camp, the technical credits are outstanding. The production design in the barracks and after an eventual transfer of prisoners to a coal mine are stunning. It’s also at this point when O’Connell’s performance finally coalesces. The main thing that will keep viewers from squirming and nodding off outside of the visuals and Alexandre Desplat’s rousing, but never overbearing score is how Zamperini is able to keep a stiff upper lip in opposition to oppressive conditions and a sadistic, entitled, Kendo stick toting warden (Takamasa Ishihara, a.k.a. Miyavi, in a killer supporting turn with an underdeveloped character) who knows of his past athletic successes and is out to make Louis’ life a living hell. O’Connell brings a certain amount of restraint and grounding to a film that without him would have spun out of control without him.
Many troubled productions are often spoken about as things that can be salvaged in post-production. Considering that the scuttlebutt around Hollywood is that this isn’t even Jolie’s preferred cut of the film (her first cut was allegedly almost 45 minutes longer, and she didn’t have final cut privilege on this), it seems like the prevailing mentality behind Unbroken was just to make sure it looked and sounded as great as humanly possible. Everything from the visual effects of waves thrashing Zamperini’s raft about the seas to the hair and make-up are on point, but outside of the actors, no one on the directorial or writing teams seems to have a clue what they’re doing.
Jolie’s prevailing mentality as a director seems to be to give the audience more than they actually want, and maybe if the film had gone a little further in pushing the boundaries of good taste and gone for an even grittier feel, that would be a good thing. But Unbroken isn’t that kind of film. Every sequence of brutality and injustice has to be delivered by hammy villains in the best lighting possible and for as long as the camera can apparently run before the film runs out in the camera (even though Deakins shot this digitally). It leads to a film where every sequence doesn’t long seconds longer than they need to. They run full minutes longer than they need to.
Then again, Jolie isn’t getting a heck of a lot of support from her screenplay, which is mindboggling since the four (!) credited writers are all noted, award winning wordsmiths: Joel and Ethan Coen (yes, THOSE Coens), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Ref, The Last Five Years), and William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables). Not one of them can even establish an authorial voice, but maybe LaGravenese comes closest since the camaraderie between the soldiers seems most within his wheelhouse. Every scene as presented becomes thoroughly toneless, as if they have all somehow diluted each other through the rewrite process. It’s clear none of them ever got into a room together at the same time to hash the film out, so it’s impossible to tell who was rewriting whom, but maybe the material would have been better off if just one of these guys (or just the Coens) were left to their own devices. At least then there would be a definitive sense of direction for Jolie to follow.
The writing and direction are complete bullet points with little depth. Individual events hold more sway than actual human emotion. These characters are given stock, sometimes motivational speeches, leading to great actors like Garrett Hedlund only being in the film to deliver reaction shots (kind of like his Inside Llewyn Davis character, but not funny) and Alex Russell nearly degrading himself early on as Louis’ brother, a character that literally only speaks in obvious motivational phrases that grate more and more as they’re repeated throughout the film. It’s all very obvious, but it forgets to give real reasons as to what makes Louis and those around them tick outside of a need to survive. It’s blunt and limp at the same time; the equivalent of a lashing with a wet noodle for over 140 minutes.
The film even produces its own metaphor for the viewing experience. As punishment for refusing to become a tool of the Japanese propaganda machine in exchange for good food and cushy housing, Louis is returned to the camp so the warden can order every prisoner to come up and punch him in the face one at a time. If anything, Jolie adequately conveys exactly what that feels like. What makes that feeling worse is when the credits hit and a series of title cards tell what happens after the film’s ludicrous and almost laughably abrupt ending takes place. Those few post-scripts hint at a much interesting film that the audience has been robbed of seeing after being essentially punched in the face over and over again without hope of catharsis or uplift. It’s all killer and all filler at the same time.