Dir: Angelina Jolie. US. 2014. 137mins
With some big names behind the camera and lesser known talents on screen, Angelina Jolie’s eagerly anticipated Unbroken turns out to be a somber and reverential – perhaps a bit too reverential for its own dramatic good – account of the early life of Louie Zamperini, the American Olympic athlete who survived more than two years in World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Already being seen as a leading Oscar contender thanks to its impressive pedigree and uplifting true story, this lengthy drama will probably need awards season help if is to become more than a mid-level box officer performer.
Directing her second dramatic feature, Jolie doesn’t vary the pace or tone much during the raft and camp sequences and while she mostly avoids POW movie cliches she doesn’t find much to put in their place to explain Zamperini’s fortitude.
Global distributor Universal has opted for a wide US release (with a PG-13 rating) on Christmas Day, pitting the film against Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and other adult-oriented awards contenders. A multinational cast should help during the film’s international rollout early in the new year but the World War II theme might still be a tricky sell.
Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard Lagravanese and William Nicholson all helped shape a script based on Laura Hillenbrand’s eponymous best-selling – and widely translated — book about Zamperini, who died last July at 97.
Beginning with a thrillingly shot air battle involving Zamperini (played by the UK’s Jack O’Connell) and the rest of the crew of a US bomber, the film intercuts airborne action footage with scenes from its subject’s early life: a wayward childhood as the son of Italian immigrants in California, his emergence as a promising runner and an appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The crash of the crew’s plane over the Pacific leads to a lengthy segment with Zamperini and two fellow airmen adrift in a raft and barely surviving attacks by sharks and a passing Japanese fighter.
Capture by the Japanese navy leads to another extended segment in a brutal POW camp, where Zamperini first encounters a Japanese commander (played by the Japanese musician known as Miyavi) who takes a sadistic interest in his famous American captive. Transfer to another camp, with the same commander in charge, results in even more brutal treatment for the prisoners (played by, among others, Australia’s Jai Courtney and the UK’s Luke Treadaway). The story ends when the war ends and Zamperini returns to the US.
Directing her second dramatic feature, Jolie doesn’t vary the pace or tone much during the raft and camp sequences and while she mostly avoids POW movie cliches she doesn’t find much to put in their place to explain Zamperini’s fortitude (early hints that religious faith played a part are not followed up on).
O’Connell (who got noticed last year in British crime drama Starred Up) and Miyavi both show considerable promise, though it remains to be seen whether they attract their own awards season attention. More likely, perhaps, is that voters will respond to the film’s behind the scenes contributors, among them Roger Deakins, whose cinematography gives Unbroken a satisfyingly classical feel, and composer Alexandre Desplat, who provides a sparse but effective score.
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures, 3 Arts Entertainment
Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures
Producers: Angelina Jolie, Clayton Townsend, Matthew Baer, Erwin Stoff
Executive producers: Mick Garris, Thomas Tull, John Jashni
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard Lagravanese, William Nicholson
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Jon Hutman
Editors: Tim Squyres, William Goldenberg
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Main cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway