'Unbroken' Is a Merely Adequate Biopic

For every powerful moment, there is a scene that lacks force and overstays its welcome.


Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund
Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Studio: Legendary Pictures, Jolie Pas, 3 Arts Entertainment
US Release Date: 2015-03-24

Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014) is old-fashioned to a fault. The film, which is adapted from Lauren Hillenbrand’s book about the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), might as well have been made in the ‘50s. Depending on your age and level of appreciation for contemporary cinema, this is either a timely throwback or a needless exercise in nostalgia. Tarantino-loving cinephiles won’t be enthused, but if the film’s success at the box office is any indication, most moviegoers in the United States long for a forgotten era when Hollywood films were handsomely made, competently performed, and politically correct. Unbroken is all that and more.

Moviegoers these days seem to be threatened by challenging films like Birdman (2014) that defy cinematic conventions, and instead prefer traditional motion pictures like Unbroken that uplift the spirit. When Unbroken was in theaters during Christmas, a number of my family members expressed interest. “It’s a true story,” they explained, as if that is enough to justify the film’s existence. They didn’t care about the groundbreaking production of Boyhood (2014) or the existential angst of Birdman. They just wanted a decent story that wasn’t set in Gotham City.

What critics and cinephiles fail to realize when average moviegoers complain about the slew of superhero movies is that their idea of an alternative is Unbroken. They’re not interested in Paul Thomas Anderson, and they could care less about Wes Anderson. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Unbroken is one of the highest grossing “adult” movies of 2014.

For those who don’t know, Zamperini was an Olympic runner who survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. Jolie’s film focuses, for the most part, on Zamperini’s experiences in the camp, and as the promotional materials proclaim, this is an “unbelievable true story” (!) about “survival, resilience, and redemption.”

Above all else, the film will be remembered for O’Connell’s breakthrough performance. At just 24 years old, the English actor has already established himself as one of cinema’s most talented newcomers. 2014 was particularly kind to him. In addition to his star turn in Unbroken, he can be seen in the great British film ’71, as well as Starred Up, in which he gives the most powerful performance by a male actor in recent memory. This is an extremely talented young actor with a bright, promising career ahead of him.

Jolie deserves credit for certain directorial choices that distinguish Unbroken from other Hollywood biopics. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, for instance, showcases Jolie’s gorgeous aesthetic, and gets us through some of the duller moments. Even when the film drags, it is pretty to look at, and many of the artfully constructed shots can stand alone as paintings. In addition, Jolie doesn’t allow Alexandre Desplat’s score to manipulate the audience’s emotions. The film is surprisingly quiet, and Jolie has the confidence to allow for long stretches of silence and contemplation in the prison camp scenes.

However, the film is at least 30 minutes too long. The childhood scenes in which Zamperini realizes that he is a talented runner are unnecessary, and the film would have benefited without them. They fail to contribute to the narrative, and instead seem to be there to lure audiences that would otherwise not be interested in a war film.

Despite these problems, when Unbroken works, it is incredibly effective. The scenes in which Zamperini and his fellow soldiers are stranded in the middle of the ocean are harrowing. One sequence, in particular, involves a Japanese fighter plane and a swarm of sharks, and it is masterfully directed for maximum suspense. Once Zamperini is taken to the prison-of-war camp, the film settles down and becomes a bit stale, only to be saved by occasional moments of greatness. For every powerful moment, there is a scene that lacks force and overstays its welcome.

Unbroken isn’t the next great prisoner-of-war film, and it certainly isn’t as memorable as Rescue Dawn (2006) or classics like Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963). It has more in common with The Railway Man (2014), another adequate biopic that falls short of brilliance. Both films are about young soldiers that suffer in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in WWII, and both preach messages of forgiveness. However, neither film successfully engages with the audience’s emotions, which results in films that can only be admired at a distance.

The dual-format Blu-ray/DVD comes with deleted scenes and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes, and they are moderately interesting, but ultimately not worth the purchase. This seems to be a growing trend as the industry transitions to digital, which is unfortunate, because there’s no denying the quality of the Blu-ray. The picture is as sharp as ever, and it is undoubtedly the best way to appreciate the film’s aesthetic pleasures.

Jolie is a promising filmmaker, and the financial success of Unbroken should provide her with more opportunities to direct. However, after this and her debut In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), another war film, it would be great to see her expand her scope and experiment with a different genre.

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