Despite a well-oiled campaign to position the film as Oscar-worthy, Unbroken remains an epic flop – you can’t fool me, overly sympathetic and rhetorical news stories designed to maintain good relations with the PR! Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort, a biopic about the Olympic sprinter and Japanese POW Louis Zamperini, takes two-and-a-half hours to say absolutely nothing about anything. It’s an unintentional comedy that even lacks the confidence to function as pure American ideology. Here are some things I noticed.
"THIS IS A TRUE STORY"
The opening shot is a blue Pacific sea with a dozen B-52 Bombers shimmering on the horizon. A title card reads: “This is a true story”. This is the first (of many) accidental jokes: who still says things like that at the beginning of biopics? It wasn’t even an epistemically qualified, “The following is based on a true story”, but a straight-up, brazen declaration of its own gospel.
“But maybe there’s something refreshing about that”, I thought (in my first and last attempt at sympathy). It’s nice to not see postmodern scare quotes enveloping every artist’s attempt at truth. Sometimes you just want a bit of round-the-campfire storytelling. On we go.
JOLIE'S CONSISTENT CARELESSNESS AS DIRECTOR
The bombing scene is well choreographed. The special FX are engaging (although the planes felt pretty weightless – a common complaint with CGI, I know; compare it to the actual bombers from Mike Nichols’ Catch 22 and the difference is palpable – and the pacing’s fun, if predictable. The fighting is presented in a very satisfying first-person perspective that makes it feel like an Xbox game. We all know about Hollywood’s influence on video games, but it seems like the inverse relationship has become equally, if not more, prevalent.
But the scene also brings to the fore some of Jolie’s directorial flaws. The very first moment we see the protagonist of a biopic is important, obviously. This is the director’s moment to articulate something – through lighting, or framing, or sound, or anything – about the person we’re going to spend the next two hours with. This doesn’t mean it has to be some heavily symbolic introduction that anticipates the character arc, but it should be something noteworthy. The characters in the B-52 bomber are so lazily introduced that it actually takes a few minutes to work out which one is our protagonist. It’s the first of much directorial carelessness.
THE UNINTENTIONAL LOLS
The WW2 scene gives way to an hour of exposition and montage that has the narrative subtlety of a Saturday Night Live sketch. While Louis’ plane is hurtling toward the sea, he has a flashback to his childhood. Yes: an actual slow-transition flashback. And now we’re watching him as a child.
Turns out lonely Louis would drink alcohol as a young boy – when he wasn’t getting bullied for being an Italian immigrant. But his mum cooked potato gnocchi and sometimes he would watch her making potato gnocchi from his bedroom and she would look up to him with her wide, olive eyes as if to say, “I know you’re a troubled kid. But I know you’re also a sensitive child because of the way you’re watching me cook my lovely potato gnocchi”.
So Louis became really good at running because he ran from the kids who bullied him. How does Jolie show this? The kids bully him. He runs. The camera pans down to his legs and then up and he’s transformed into a teenager and is running track at high school! This risible attempt at montage demonstrates the contempt with which Unbroken treats its audience: it believes they merit only the most staid and formulaic of narrative devices.
ZAMPERINI IS ALL BODY NO THINKY
Jack O’Connell is Britain’s most promising young actor (my interview with him for ’71 right here), and his primary currency is his body. Jolie’s keen to exploit O’Connell’s physicality – from long-distance running, to being attacked by sharks on a raft, to being tortured by Japs, to being beaten up by Americans – there’s scarcely a moment when he isn’t exhausted and bruised. But it’s at the expense of any insight into his character.
When the Japs, exploiting Louis’ Olympic fame, offer him freedom from his POW camp on the condition that he reads Japanese propaganda on the radio, he’s met with his first non-physical dilemma. But because his character lacks any internal density (just like the CGI bombers), it’s hard to read and understand his response. His courageous decision (to down the offer and return to the POW camp) becomes an action suspended in a moral and psychological vacuum. Is he a patriot? Is he an individualist? Is he a masochist? What am I going to have for dinner tonight? Do I have money on my Oyster card to get the Tube back?
THE 1936 OLYMPICS ARE MEMORABLE – BUT JOLIE RUINS IT
Unbroken will probably get some craft nominations; the set design is impressive. There’s a scene early on at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics where Zamperini competed. Having seen so much black-and-white footage of the stadium in history documentaries, to see it rendered in colour and detail is truly involving: a moment of absorbing realism. But Jolie ruins it by having a scene where Zamperini and Jesse Owens make eye contact and nod.
TO SUM UP...
Apparently, the producers intervened and re-edited Jolie’s director’s cut because “it was too arthouse”. If the original was too arthouse, then the producers’ final product is whatever the imaginary opposite of that is. They tried to make it accessible for everyone (it’s got a Christmas Day release), but ended up with insipid populism that treats its audience like idiots, and refuses to engage meaningfully with Louis Zamperini and his fascinating life.
(N.B. I lost count of the number of people who took leisurely breaks to the toilet during the screening. I went twice.)
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