Thursday, February 26, 2015
To Hell and Back
by Thomas Delapa, Entertainment Voice
While film crowds across the U.S. have practically given “American Sniper ” a ticket-tape parade, the producers of “Unbroken” must be asking themselves why audiences for their valorous World War II drama are in retreat. Cynics might say that trigger-happy screen violence is always a sure shot, while a simple, disarming story of wartime heroism and endurance is likely to miss the box-office bull’s eye. Both pictures recoil from the non-fiction world, but it’s Angelina Jolie‘s directorial breakthrough that merits the longer salute.
What informs Jolie’s deft direction is her obvious passion and empathy for the subject matter—one of the great, if still largely unfamiliar, wartime U.S. survival sagas. Not only did the 26-year-old U.S. track star Louie Zamperini live through 47 dire, shark-infested days clinging to a tiny raft in the Pacific, but his “rescuers” were the Japanese navy, who promptly sailed him off to a succession of some of the most horrific POW camps in the Pacific War. Commendations for bringing Zamperini’s incredible exploits to a new generation’s attention first went to acclaimed author Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”) with the 2010 publication of her best-selling biography.
Over the years, a squad of screenwriters made a run at Hillenbrand’s 500-plus page book, the baton ending up with the unlikely team of Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen. Serving their source with honor, the Coens zero in on the human drama and jettison their characteristic ironic ballast. Universal also joined up to the tune of a reported $60 million, certainly one of the biggest budgets ever commanded by a female director.
“Unbroken” has taken on some fair flak for echoing a volley of inspirational POW dramas—from “Bridge on the River Kwai” spanning to the uncelebrated “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” However, it rises above the potshots, primarily because Jolie keeps her hand steady as she goes towards the truth. She’s also brave in her casting, ditching Hollywood brass in favor of talented unknowns.
Of course, the critical role is Army Lt. Zamperini himself, and the young Brit Jack O’Connell valiantly executes the arduous physical scenes demanded of him. However, there’s an intangible weapon that Jolie brings in, and that’s a wrenching sense of empathy that Louie displays for his battered brother-in-arms. “Lucky” Louie is no beefy John Wayne—or Clint Eastwood—packing a Spartan detachment from the pain of others. He winces when he sees (and hears) his comrades suffering their injuries and imprisonment, even more so than when his own scrawny body is on the line.
Jolie and company can be forgiven for humanely limiting the atrocities they actually portray, and surely worse were meted out in the camps. However, further turns of the screws might have been warranted to counterattack our own superhuman penchant for burying the atrocious shrapnel of the past. As Louie’s whispering Grand Inquisitor camp commander, the Japanese musician Miyavi strikes a memorably savage note (his sadism has a sexual charge) that ranks with the Oscar-winning Sessue Hayakawa in “River Kwai.”
Broken up by flashbacks to Louie’s checkered past as both Italian-American delinquent and 1936 Olympic star, structurally “Unbroken” is nothing to write home about, and might have been sturdier had the supporting characters been built up. There’s no doubt that this is Louie’s epic story, to a fault, while his band of brothers generally stand at attention in the background.
In a Hollywood so incestuously devoted to over-the-top action and the girls-not-allowed club of blockbuster digital effects, Jolie charts her own course, delivering a heady sense of both realism and humanity, ably served by the veteran Roger Deakins’ pristine photography. That “Unbroken” was only decorated with a few minor Oscar nominations is at least a little heartbreaking.