Saturday, January 23, 2016

Unbroken (2014)

Director: Angelina Jolie                                    Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                         Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Takamasa Ishihara

Every year at the Oscars it seems there is one film that, while seemingly poised to win a number of awards, is completely ignored. Thus was the fate of Unbroken. On the surface it seemed to have everything going for it. It was based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who competed in the Berlin games of 1936 and then went on to fight in World War II, surviving despite all odds until the end of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The screenplay was written by, among others, the Coen Brothers, and was helmed by Angelina Jolie, at first blush not the most promising choice for director. But the fact is she has worked under a number of top directors, including Oliver Stone and Clint Eastwood, and this was not her first attempt at directing. Nevertheless, the film earned only three nominations in technical categories, two for sound and one for the tremendous work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. But upon the first viewing the problems are obvious. A reliance on CGI special effects as a way to save money renders, and a script with no soul, renders the entire film little more than a cartoon. It’s a shame, because the story of Zamperini is such a remarkable one, and yet the film fails to come anywhere close to realizing the war hero’s actual experiences.

The film begins with a squadron of planes flying across the dawn skyline on a bombing mission. After their run, the bomb doors on the plane won’t close and bombardier Jack O’Connell is send down to try to close them amid the bullets from the attacking Japanese fighter planes. Jai Courney and Domhnall Gleeson are the pilots, and though they have shot down all the enemy planes, theirs has been shot up as well and they may not make it back to their base. It’s then that O’Connell flashes back to his childhood, in church, a priest telling them that light and dark both come from God. His parents are Italian immigrants, they don’t speak English, and he is the bad kid in town, drinking, stealing and fighting with the other kids who call him a foreigner. His older brother, Alex Russell, seeing how fast he runs away from trouble, forces O’Connell into running track and by the time he’s a senior he breaks the national high school record for the mile and wins a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Back in the present the crew makes it to the island landing strip, and despite losing their breaks a flat tire enables them to land without crashing. O’Connell is still in training, hoping that there will be an Olympics in 1944. Next, they are sent on a rescue mission, but their plane loses two of its engines, and just as they are about to ditch O’Connell flashes back to the opening ceremonies in Berlin. Looking around the stadium as the torch is brought in, he makes eye contact with Takamasa Ishihara as one of the Japanese athletes. O’Connell finished eighth in the 5,000 meters, but had the fastest final lap ever recorded.

Back to the war, as the plane crash lands in the water, O’Connell becomes stuck under some equipment. Fortunately the plane breaks in half and the tail section where he’s stuck briefly rises above the water. After it goes down for the last time, however, he breaks free and swims to the surface. The pilot Gleeson and crewmember Finn Wittrock are the only others who survived. After nearly two months at sea, adrift in a lifeboat and losing Wittrock, the remaining two are finally rescued. Unfortunately, it isn’t by the Americans. O’Connell eventually winds up in a prison camp run by Ishihara, and the rest of the film recounts the privation and merciless systematic torture that O’Connell endures at the hands of the Japanese. It is easily the best part of the film, not only because of the incredible heroism that it displays, but also because of the realism that is achieved by the filmmakers. It was clear that Jolie was attempting to draw on her experience with Clint Eastwood in the film Changeling, but with so much reliance on computer generated effects throughout the whole film, the quality of the direction almost doesn’t matter. While it works on something like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, in war films like Pearl Harbor or Red Tails it is a glaring artificiality that the film can never recover from. Pick any random episode from the HBO series’ Band of Brothers or The Pacific and the deficiencies of Jolie’s project become abundantly clear.

In addition to the CGI, the most surprising deficiency is with the screenplay. Aside from the bantering between O’Connell and his fellow soldiers--which includes the attempts at keeping everyone sane on the life raft--there’s almost no dialogue. It’s actually astounding that nothing of consequence is discussed . . . by anyone. The result is a vacuous character study where it should have been engaging, a predictable plot where it should have been suspenseful, and a boring story where it should have been inspiring. The film is one that feels completely objective, as though one were reading it out of a school textbook, with all the emotion sapped out of it and left as a husk that contains nothing but facts and dates. And while the film was criticized by some for not paying more attention to Zamperini’s religious conversion, the time that is spent on it is horribly cliché, even it if was true. None of the leads--while they are all more than capable--stand out as delivering noteworthy performances, even O’Connell. Even the performance by Takamasa Ishihara seems flat, when normally villains are the easiest characters to play. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does some nice work, worthy of his Oscar nomination, and combined with Jolie they do as good a job as possible with the script they had to work with. But the computer effects and a massive post-production manipulation of the images didn’t do him any favors. While Unbroken should have been one of the great unknown stories of World War Two, it is ultimately a disappointment.

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