All through the history of film directors have had all sorts of backgrounds, but in recent years directors have usually followed two (sometimes overlapping) paths: that of the film school brat and that of the self-taught indie auteur. Both of those scenarios basically entail directing right from the beginning, but this hasn’t always been the norm. If you look into the biographies of the early studio filmmakers like Howard Hawks or John Ford you find that most of them started in Hollywood at a young age doing menial entry level jobs at studios and more or less got promoted into the directorial role. You don’t see a lot of that today, but directors from other fields of filmmaking do emerge, usually when someone becomes so famous as a writer or cinematographer or producer that they decide to try their hand at the most prestigious role on the set. Then of course there are the actors-turned-directors; the movie stars who get sick of being pigeonholed as the pretty face in front of the camera and decide to either direct themselves once in a while or step entirely behind the camera. Often these directorial careers are disasters that are quickly abandoned after one misbegotten vanity project, but every once in a while you get a Clint Eastwood or a Mel Gibson who seems to actually be an important talent behind the camera. The latest star to try their hand at directing is Angelina Jolie. Jolie’s 2011 film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, was largely ignored but that didn’t seem to daunt her and she’s come back with a high profile adaptation of a bestselling war-time biography called Unbroken.
Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the second most famous member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team. Zamperini was an Italian-American track star who seemed poised to make a big splash at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, but of course those plans were dashed when the world went to war and those Olympics were canceled. Zamperini himself ended up fighting in that war as the gunner in the air force and it was in that capacity that he found himself fighting for his life after a crash left him and two other airmen stranded on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by sharks and hostile Japanese fighter planes. Adding insult to injury, when he finally gets out of that situation he’s taken prisoner by the Japanese and while in captivity needed to contend with a vicious Japanese corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe (played here by a pop singer named Miyavi) who is determined to break Zamperini’s spirit.
This highlight of Zamperini’s story is almost certainly the part where he survives at sea for forty seven long days eating nothing but raw fish and albatross meat and somehow even survives a strafing by enemy aircraft. That’s kind of an awkward highlight, partly because we’ve very recently seen a pair of better “survival at sea” stories in Life of Pi and All is Lost. The bigger problem though is that this section of the movie ends at the halfway point and the movie shifts into a fairly standard P.O.W. story and that lowering of the stakes would seem to go against the conventional wisdom of how a movie is supposed to progress. The film certainly tries to sell Zamperini’s war of wills with Watanabe as somehow equal to the trials he experienced while surviving on the life raft, but I wasn’t really buying it. When your climactic moment of victory involves a dude holding a board above his head I think you’ve probably gone astray.
The film does certainly have its moments. Movies about World War II era flyboys always come off a little corny to me, and this one isn’t really an exception, but some of the early air battles are handled pretty well and feature a nicely dynamic surround sound mix. The raft scenes are also well done and the sequence where Zamperini escapes an Ariel strafing is particularly exciting while it lasts. I’ve already mentioned that the P.O.W. camp scenes are a little anti-climactic, but I wouldn’t say they’re “bad” per se. Miyavi and O’Connell have a certain chemistry and the give and take between the two characters isn’t uninteresting. However, we do live in a world where The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Cool Hand Luke, and The Shawshank Redemption all exists, so I can’t really get too excited by this section of the movie. The scenes that fare less well are the flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood and Olympic career that are intercut early in the film. These scenes are just kind of stock and they lean too heavily on “inspirational” slogans. That said, outside of those early scenes and some of the post-film title cards the movie isn’t too bad about telegraphing its message.
I guess the $10,000 question with this movie is “can Angelina Jolie direct.” Well, the answer is “sort of.” At the very least she’s proven herself to be perfectly competent behind the camera. Did the film suggest to me that she’s a distinct auteur? Not so much. At best it suggested to me that she could be the next Ron Howard: a somewhat talented journeyman who can make middlingly crafted studio films that are good enough to satisfy audiences but don’t challenge them or do much of anything to advance the craft of cinema in any particularly notable way. Still, I don’t know that this has been her last or best test. At the end of the day Unbroken was maybe not the best story to try to adapt. Zamperini’s story was certainly a testament to human endurance but it doesn’t fit the conventional Hollywood structure too well in spite of the film’s stringent attempts to do just that. So, I can’t say I have a lot of respect for this movie, but I can’t really say I actively dislike it either. It’s certainly “Oscar bait” but I didn’t get the same cynical vibe out of it that I expected to. All told it’s a perfectly watchable and moderately entertaining drama, not something I will remember for long, but not something I really regret having seen either.
*** out of Four