Finally, the one we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the middle of Oscar season and I’ve been wondering where that big, epic, glossy, expensive, emotional, inspirational, with-a-cast-of-thousands Oscar bait movie was going to come along and knock us off our feet. So far, all the movies that have created awards buzz (Boyhood, Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel) have been little movies with little oomph behind them and have relied on little things like quality, word-of-mouth and reviews to sustain them. What Hollywood really needs to get this Oscar season going is a classic, old-fashioned big-budget epic with star power behind it, major studio support, a massive marketing budget—a movie based on a true story that will inspire the masses and make our hearts sing.
Plan A: Exodus: Gods and Kings. Plan B: Unbroken.
Hollywood might need a Plan C.
There was a large part of me that was rooting for Unbroken to be a terrific film. I had heard the book it is based on, by Laura Hillenbrand, is an excellent read, and the people brought in to write the screenplay were none other than my favorites, Joel & Ethan Coen, along with Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and William Nicholson (Gladiator), which meant the script certainly was in capable hands. But, mainly, I was rooting for it because it was directed by Angelina Jolie and, yes, I do want to see more big-budget, big-studio, mass-marketed movies directed by women. So, if Unbroken is a success, that would signal that these kinds of movies are in capable hands with a woman, even if the woman happens to be one of the most powerful women in entertainment who can surround herself with the best. But, in the end, all artistic and creative decisions are hers and the final product up on the screen is hers to answer to, so this is Jolie’s movie and nobody else’s and that means that if it’s a success, then it is her success and that would be only a good thing for the future of women directors. But the hard truth is, directing isn’t as easy as it looks (neither is acting), and not anyone can do it and even fewer can do it well. While there’s nothing specifically terrible with Unbroken, there is nothing special about it, either. For all this movie needed and had the potential to be, it ended up being ordinary and the experience left me flat and, quite frankly, bewildered.
Unbroken tells the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympic athlete who nearly dies over the Pacific when his plane crashes during World War II in enemy territory. He survives, however, along with 2 of his fellow crewmen, for 47 days in a raft, only to be picked up by the Japanese, where he is sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, forced to endure even more unimaginable horrors at the hands of a brutal camp commander. It is an absolutely impossible story to imagine, and when you hear it described or summed up, you can only imagine how powerfully Zamperini’s story would come to life on screen. But, for some reason, Unbroken remains incredibly paint-by-numbers and predictable, never reaching any emotional moments, especially odd for a story that should hit some powerful human touchpoints.
As I am trying to figure out what left me so hollow, I’m staring at the poster for Unbroken, which screams out three words: “Survival. Resilience. Redemption.” And it hit me. Survival? Check. Resilience? Check. But redemption? In order to have redemption, you must know the character, the character must be flawed or have failed in some way in order to be able to earn that redemption. In Unbroken, we barely get to know the character of Louis Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell, before he is put into peril, and what we do know of him is trivial and cliché. How can anyone gain redemption if there is nothing to redeem? And, honestly, if there is no redemption, then the only point of this movie is to watch Louis survive his ordeal, which is about as emotionally moving as watching ants carry their load back and forth.
Again, Unbroken is not a bad movie. It’s well-made, but there is nothing memorable or even unique here. Everything felt just too distant, too safe, too antiseptic. And for a story that’s all about the human spirit enduring over impossible odds, the inability to connect with even the simplest human emotion in this human spoke volumes.
By the way, I’m still rooting for you, Angie.