“After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.”

Director: Angelina Jolie
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese
Staring: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Domhanall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney
Release Date: December 25, 2014

Unbroken (2014) is a biographical story telling the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who joined the armed forces during the heat of World War II. Zamperini’s aspiring goals for gold are forever altered when he his captured by the Japanese after his plane crashed in the Pacific ocean. Zamperini must endure the ire of the Japenese, and in particular commanding officer Watanabe (Miyavi), if he wants to get home and continue to live the American dream.

Angelina Jolie’s third directorial performance relays heavily the power and Zamperini’s story and the performance of Jack O’Connell. Through flashbacks we learn that Zamperini struggled to find identity as a child but found his stride running, bringing him fame and recognition throughout the country. His stature in the American public means nothing in war, and the fight that Zamperini has within himself against the Japanese treatment of he and his comrades is supposed to be symbolic of the ideal American dream and comeback.

I say “supposed to” because Unbroken falls short and having half of the emotional heft is it attempting to emote.

Unbroken is broken, and it is genuinely shocking to me how this movie was nominated for three Oscars and was put on the National Board of Review’s list of Best Movies in 2014. I would like to personally speak to the Academy and to The Board and ask them why.

For the record, Unbroken was nominated at the 2015 Oscars in the categories of Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

First thing first. When you have a biographical story that is meant to have an emotional knockout punch, you need an actor to load and deliver. Jack O’Connell was not up to the task. O’Connell was in five movies in 2014, two of them being his most profitable as an actor; Unbroken and 300: Rise Of An Empire (2014). This may have been the time in his career when he was trying to become a thing, much like how the world thought Taylor Kitsch would be a leading man.

In Unbroken, everything is from the eyes of O’Connell, so we need to buy into whatever he is putting out there. Even when there is the incredibly staged moment of Zamperini raising the piece of would over his head, we are still wanting more. Now this admittedly is not all the fault of the performer. The exclamation point moment does have the emotional heft it should because everything leading up to it is also underwhelming.

The biggest example of the lack of emotion comes when Zamperini and his fellow pilots are in the ocean stranded on the boat. When I tell you that this 30 minutes stretch of the movie is worthy a pee break, trip to your favorite convenient store and then a shower to boot, I mean all of it. What a blah, boring stretch. The dialogue is bad and all of it looks fake. I am not sure if they filmed this sequence in a pool or on set, but when you get the shots of the shark, and the seagulls, they all look to clean. The men are grimy, but everything around them seems polished.

Roger Deakins did the cinematography for Unbroken, and the Coen brothers got credit on the screenplay as well. Both of these facts shook me to my core when I found out.

In 2012 Deakins did Skyfall, and that was followed up the by wonderful despair of Prisoners (2013). We have Unbroken in 2014, followed by Sicario (2015). I ask you, which of those do not belong? Maybe this is myself, Jonathan Stanko, coming to a realization that I enjoy Deakins when he is working more with dark colors and he can play more with dramatic lighting? 1917 (2019) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) are masterpieces of subtle (and not so subtle) lighting and staging. Unbroken was almost entirely in the daylight. I don’t know, I am just vamping here.

Alright, now to Coen Brothers. Unbroken is one two movies that the pair have written but not directed, the other being Bridge Of Spies (2015). While both of those movies don’t delve into the absurdity or darkness that other Coen screenplays do, comparing Bridge Of Spies and Unbroken comes down to one thing; the director. We have Angelina Jolie doing her first big budget project versus Steven Spielberg, who can make the most out of absolutely nothing.

Perhaps this audience needed a bit more of the Coen craziness or rated-R potential in the script. Unbroken suffers from the same problem as 42 (2013). We know that what Zamperini and Jackie Robinson went through, but because of a PG-13 rating we aren’t hit with the emotional fist-a-cuff we need.

Another question I have about the screenplay and how it played out. Are we supposed to care about the secondary characters in this movie? At the end during the credits we get the classic text on the screen explaining what happened to Zamperini and everyone. The most I know about the fellow soldiers of Zamperini is that all of them are played by quasi well-known actors. Domhall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock and Jai Courtney are all faces that you point and go “I KNOW THAT GUY.” Beyond that. Don’t have much to say.

Unbroken is broken. It is a story that is 100% worth telling, but it needs a better telling than this. Missed the mark. Missed the emotional punch. This is an important lesson that an uplifting movie does not always mean it is a good one.

STANKO RATING: D+ (2.0/5 Stars)

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