“Unbroken” Ends the Year in Film on a High Note

Unbroken image from Movie Pilot

I know you’ve heard the cliché “Truth is stranger than fiction” millions of times. Still, the story of Louis Zamperini is a perfect example of how that cliché came to be so common in the first place. The man deserves to be honored as an Awesome Person in History for the unbelievable life he lived.

The son of Italian immigrants growing up in Torrance, California, he went from being a juvenile delinquent to a track star in his high school years, and was so fast that he eventually wound up racing in the Olympics. Then, World War II happened, and he served in the Army Air Forces over the Pacific. While on a mission, his plane crashed, and he wound up surviving adrift in a life raft for 47 days. When he was finally found, it wasn’t by the Americans, but by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war as a POW, enduring beatings and torture at the hands of his captors. In spite of it all, he survived to see the war’s end, and eventually became a Christian inspirational speaker with the help of Billy Graham. He died earlier this year, just before the biopic about his life was released.

It would be really easy to make a full-length movie out of any one part of this man’s life. Making a movie about his whole life is a tall order indeed. Yet after a biography about him written by the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend became a massive best-seller, that’s exactly what Legendary Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment decided to do.

That’s not the only reason I wanted to review Unbroken this week. The other reason was who the studios picked to sit in the director’s chair:

Unbroken image from StarSeeker

Yes, that’s Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood star and actress. She has appeared in 46 movies, but it seems clear that she is trying to build a career behind the camera as a director, producer, and writer. This is actually the second feature film she has directed, the first having been the 2011 war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey. We’re about to see even more films by her in the coming years: By the Sea is slated to come out next year, followed by the recently-announced Africa.

So, how does Jolie do as a director? I have to admit, surprisingly well. Unbroken was a very well-put-together movie. Jolie has a very visual style, preferring to focus more on what you see than on the dialogue. Sure, there is no shortage of talking in this movie, but there are also long stretches of quiet, where the movie just lets the audience get what’s going on from the images and the ambient sound.

If that comes across as artsy, well, it is. Unbroken is an artsy movie. However, it’s artiness is understated. I’ve seen plenty of movies that really try to go for artistic style as the main selling point and focus (Hannah, Sweeney Todd, anything by Terry Gilliam). The problem with this kind of filmmaking is that it distracts everyone from the story, forcing the audience to judge the movie more on whether or not they like the art style. In my experience, the more artsy a movie is, the fewer average moviegoers will like it. Jolie is smart to rein in the artiness and keep the film’s main focus on the story.

The other smart decision Jolie made was to let the story speak for itself. It’s become practically routine for “Based on a True Story” movies that come out of Hollywood to take tremendous liberties with the story, distorting the facts to better fit the filmmakers’ visions. This movie, whose script was written by the Coen brothers, kept very true to the real-life story. It also helped that Jolie was actually a neighbor and good friend of Zamperini in real life. I could just imagine how awkward it would be for Jolie the next time she spoke to him if she had tried to change the story. In any case, the true story is so incredible and astonishing, it needs no “spicing up” at all.

Unbroken image from Variety

The star of the movie, though, steals the spotlight. British actor Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire, ’71) shows impressive range while he plays Zamperini. He has not been in many major motion pictures yet, but if this is the kind of performance we can expect from him, then I say we should hope O’Connell appears in many more movies to come. In a visual movie like this, the onus is on the actors to communicate to the audience what the characters are going through with facial expressions, gestures, and actions. O’Connell does a great job at this. In fact, in the climax of the movie, he doesn’t even speak at all, just using his face to sell what’s happening in the scene.

To be fair, the movie is clearly leaning heavily on some of the go-to formulas from popular biopics and war dramas of the past. But that’s really nit-picking at this point. Truth be told, I will be disappointed if Unbroken doesn’t at least get a nomination for best film of the year from the Oscars and Golden Globes. I absolutely recommend it.