Early last year I made a bold statement that Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ would sweep the Oscars. I held onto that faith, that stance, for pretty much the entire year until the film was released, the reviews were tepid and Award’s Season was in full swing. It then became obvious that ‘Unbroken’ wasn’t going to come close to winning a single Oscar, even though it managed to snag three nominations. I had yet to see the film, and so I was under the impression that Jolie crafted an inadequate film. It all struck me as odd, since so many of the film’s facets seemed tailor made for Oscar (Jolie, Coens, Desplat, Deakins) and yet so many warned me that it was too on the nose for Oscar and that it would fail.
Failed Oscar bait is what they call this kind of thing.
Well, I’ve finally seen the film, and I can honestly say, no bias aside, that the Oscar snubbery baffles me. What Jolie did here was construct a handsomely mounted biopic that carries with it a tremendous story of courage, strength and perseverance, covers a large portion of one man’s life, inspires, uplifts and pretty much checks off every single requirement for Oscar voters. The fact that this was not wholly embraced by Oscar literally baffles me. It makes no sense, for it is everything they love.
You know, except the fact that it was made by a woman.
I’m not going to get on a soapbox here, so I’ll leave it here, but I will say that Jolie’s film has more heart, more technical bravado and more depth than ‘The Theory of Everything’, ‘Boyhood’ and ‘The Imitation Game’, and so seeing this snubbed so staunchly, while those films were embraced across the board, really causes me to pause and question the way that the Academy thinks. The accusations of sexism were swarming after AMPAS snubbed DuVernay and Flynn, and I got in on that, but this is yet another example of a film that played right into their hands and they completely ignored it, shunned it almost, without just cause.
Now, I’m not saying that ‘Unbroken’ is perfect. I’m not even saying that I’d personally nominate it in many places (I mean, those sound nominations were justly deserved, so maybe there), but what I’m saying is that the criticisms heaped onto the film feel oddly places and undeserved here.
The film tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, a wayward Italian American who finally gained his footing in society when his brother convinced him to join the track team. He had a knack for running away. And so, with dedication and fervor, he made his way into the Olympics, breaking records and making a name for himself, until he found himself in a fighter plane during WWII, spiraling towards the ocean. Floating for days in a raft (47 to be exact), Zamperini and his friend, Phil, were as good as dead until they were captured by the Japanese Navy and thus became prisoners of war. Zamperini immediately became singled out by a tyrant known as The Bird, a cruel young man with ‘daddy issues’ who took out his frustrations and feelings of inadequacy and weakness on Zamperini for years.
This man’s story is incredible.
Jolie’s direction is steady, focused and relentless. Watching scene after scene of Zamperini’s torture at the hands of a wicked, wicked man can be hard to stomach, and yet the way that Deakins’ frames the film (yes, some shots call to mind his other work) and the way that Jolie moves from scene to scene help establish a true sense of honesty about what she’s doing here. There is no schmaltzy sentiment, which I admired, but really a sense of earned sympathy as we watch Zamperini grow as a man despite his situation. A lot of this is thanks to the masterful way in which Jack O’Connell handles this performance. He had such a tremendous year, and quite honestly this performance is far better than the one that won the Oscar.
My only real issues with the film are the flashback scenes, for some of them are ill-timed, and I do wish that the narrative had been more chronological instead of starting us in the middle of his story and then continually going back. I do wish the sweeping epics of the 70’s and 80’s. If only ‘Unbroken’ could have been another hour in length, taking a play from the Sergio Leone handbook and given us a ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ feel, then this would have been a modern-day masterpiece.
Masterpiece, this is not, but what this is, is a VERY good movie that succeeds in making Louis Zamperini a real man, a living breathing human being, and tells us a story that shouldn’t be missed. I have no good explanation for why AMPAS turned their noses up at ‘Unbroken’, but maybe that says it all.