As recently as a month ago, Unbroken was a legitimate Best Picture Oscar contender—it was even the frontrunner in some polls. There’s no arguing the fact that the film’s source material and pedigree are quintessential Oscar bait—the underdog story of triumph over severe adversity, its World War II setting, direction by A-lister Angelina Jolie, cinematography by Roger Deakins (whose 0-11 Oscar record is borderline criminal)… they all just scream “Oscar”.
But folks’ lofty expectations for Unbroken were based on potential alone, since no one had actually seen the film. And now that the tablecloth has been yanked off (voila!), well… let’s just say that no one has it at the top spot anymore, and, in fact, many awards season predictors have dropped it altogether.
And rightly so.
That’s not to say Unbroken doesn’t have its moments. The saga of an Italian immigrant Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) overcoming his troubled youth to race in the 1936 Olympics is inspiring all by itself—and that’s before he became a bombardier, spent 47 days adrift in the ocean, and then got thrown in a series of Japanese POW camps over the course of two years.
But the biggest problem Unbroken has is that it just feels too safe—too average overall. Though Deakins’ camera work is extraordinary (as usual), Jolie seems content to just let the story play out on its own; she doesn’t add very much to make the film stand out or become memorable. It’s a story that gets told exactly how you imagine it would.
Some of the blame, too, gets laid on the shoulders of one of the more impressive (on paper) quartets of screenwriters to collaborate on a single film: Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson. Adapting the award-winning biography by Laura Hillenbrand couldn’t have been an easy task; any one of the book’s chapters could have become its own movie. So condensing everything into a film of just over two hours not only leaves out some of the more interesting anecdotes from the book, but it also leaves you feeling cheated from not getting more of the backstory that could have made a difference in the finished film. And the epilogue, which is presented in a lengthy set of closing graphics, only adds to the problem.
O’Connell, for his part, is a revelation—making us feel each and every kick, punch, and thwack Zamperini endured at the hands of his sadistic POW camp commandant (Takamasa Ishihara). He also brings an enormous amount of humanity, hope, and endurance to the role, often conveying more with just a look or a glance than many actors do with a whole scene.
As a director, Jolie certainly does show plenty of promise, and it’s not farfetched to think that even as soon as with her next film she could become a respected (and lauded) director. Unbroken, though, isn’t the surefire success many imagined it would be… which (on a personal note) is unfortunate, since there’s got to be something that can come along and give the heinously overrated Boyhood some competition.