’Tis the season for slices of history at the holiday box office, as prestige biopics angling for awards consideration flood our multiplexes and shine lights on different acts of heroism, sacrifice and endurance. This year’s bumper crop of Important Dramas (capped for emphasis) have either immersed us in the urgency of their era (see Selma) or placed their subject on a pedestal for all to appreciate (see American Sniper). Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken does a bit of both, honoring the incredible story of survivor Louis Zamperini while simultaneously making a handful of filmmaking choices that slightly deflate this well-meaning, reverent biography.
If a screenwriter concocted Louis Zamperini’s story, you’d laugh them off the block. There’s no way to believe an ounce of this, except all of it is true (and was documented, beautifully, in author Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling non-fiction book). Touching only on Zamperini’s milestones, he was an Olympic track star, a World War II veteran, the survivor of a freak aerial accident that landed him on a life raft for 47 grueling days, and – finally – a prisoner of war who endured a lengthy stay in a Japanese camp. His story is incredible. And in the hands of director Jolie, it becomes believable – easily the strongest compliment I can pay her, her fantastic cast, and her behind-the-camera talents.
You can’t help but notice how beautiful Unbroken looks, even as atrocity after atrocity occurs on screen. That’s because Jolie recruited the best in the business – cinematographer Roger Deakins – to photograph her inspirational tribute to Zamperini’s struggles. Even though Deakins shoots in digital, numerous shots in Jolie’s drama catch your breath with their exquisite composition. His aerial sequences are sun-drenched by never too bleachy. His ocean-set scenes stretch for miles without ever losing focus. And his POW-camp detours – as brutal, heartwrenching and difficult as they are – immerse us in Zamperini’s dire fate without disorienting us, the way similar efforts usually do.
Deakins isn’t the only Hollywood all-star on Jolie’s deep bench of talent, though. Unbroken is adapted by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen – honestly – and the siblings find subtly terrific moments to transition between Zamperini’s current war-time troubles and the man’s past accomplishments (which prepared him for the unrelenting obstacles he’d face while in confinement). Composer Alexander Desplat chimes in with a moderately syrupy, occasionally haunting and ultimately triumphant score. And casting director Francine Maisler hit multiple home runs – more on that in a moment.
Jolie is proving, with only her second film, to be a director on the rise. Zamperini’s story presents numerous challeges to any who’d choose to adapt it, and Jolie figures her way around most of them without calling attention to her effort. The man’s impossible journey usually means that Jolie, as a filmmaker, is restricted in terms of her locations. Large chunks of Unbroken occur on a life raft, or in a POW camp. Yet, the film never feels constricted by its surroundings. Jolie has an incredible eye for period detail (though she’s again aided by the exquisite talents of Deakins). And she coaches an impressively mature performance out of her leading man, Jack O’Connell, and several of the men in his company.
Louis Zamperini’s struggle was a ridiculous endurance test, though, and one which no human ever should have to face. Forget the film’s pseudo-motivational slogan of, “If you can take it, you can make it.” The physical and emotional abuse levied on Zamperini is unbearable, and that weight hangs around the neck of Unbroken like an anchor. It’s a difficult drama to endure, not matter how Important the story. But those who choose to take this trip with Jolie will be rewarded by a handsome, harrowing Hollywood tribute to an unforgettable American hero.