Ultimately, Unbroken is a victim of expectations.
From the start of last year, Oscar watchers and other film critics were united in fully expecting Unbroken to be a great film. No sooner had 12 Years A Slave won best picture then we were all predicting that Unbroken would be named the best film of 2014 and that Angelina Jolie would be the 2nd woman to win an Oscar for best director.
And can you blame us?
Unbroken seemed to have everything that you would expect to add up to Oscar glory. Not only was it directed by a celebrity (and, ever since Argo, everyone has been under the impression that all performers can also direct) but it starred an exciting and up-and-coming actor. It was not only a war film but it was a war film that took place during the only war that everyone agrees was a good one, World War II. It was based on a true story and what a story! Louis Zamperini was an Olympic medalist whose athletic career was put on hold when he joined the U.S. Air Force. After a plane crash, he and two other survivors spent 47 days floating in a lifeboat. They were finally captured by the Japanese and Louis spent the rest of the war as POW. During that time, he survived terrible torture. When the war finally ended, Louis set aside his anger and publicly forgave those who had nearly killed him. When he was 80 years old, he returned to Japan and carried the Olympic torch. It’s an incredibly touching story and it should have made for a great movie.
And, ultimately, that’s Unbroken‘s downfall. It has all the ingredients for being a great movie but instead, it’s only a good one.
That’s certainly not the fault of Jack O’Connell, who plays Louis and gives a strong and sympathetic performance. Actually, the entire film is well-acted, with everyone fully inhabiting his role. Perhaps the film’s best performance comes from Miyavi, who plays “The Bird,” the sadistic head of both of the POW camps where Louis is held prisoner. The dynamic between The Bird and Louis is an interesting one, with the film emphasizing that The Bird is in many ways jealous of Louis’s previous fame and Miyavi plays the character as if he were a high school bully who has suddenly been left in charge of the classroom.
That the cast does well should not be a surprise. Actors-turned-directors can usually get good performances but often times, they seem to struggle with shaping a narrative and this is where Unbroken struggles. It’s not that Unbroken doesn’t tell a worthy story. It’s just that it tells it in such a conventional and predictable way. The entire film is full of scenes that seem like they were lifted out of other, more memorable movies. The scenes with Louis growing up and competing in the Olympics feel like they could have come from any “inspiring” sports biopic. (It doesn’t help that Louis’s brother and coach has been given dialogue that sounds like it should be surrounded by air quotes.) When Louis is joking around with the guys in the plane, it feels like a hundred other war films. When Louis is floating in the ocean, it’s hard not to compare the film’s static and draggy approach to what Ang Lee was able to do with Life of Pi or J.C. Chandor with All Is Lost. Miyavi brings a feeling of real menace and danger to the POW scenes but it’s not enough. Jolie’s direction is competent but there’s not a single moment that feels spontaneous or truly cinematic.
In fact, I sat through Unbroken totally dry-eyed, which is somewhat amazing considering how easily I cry at the movies. However, towards the end of the film, there was a clip of the real-life, 80 year-old Louis running down the streets of Tokyo with the Olympic Torch and, at that moment, his story became real for me. And that’s when the tears came.
I really wish Unbroken had been better because Louis Zamperini seems like someone who deserved to have a great film made about him. Angelina Jolie’s heart was in the right place but, ultimately, it’s just not enough to make Unbroken the film that it deserves to be.