Angelina Jolie had one key goal, I believe, in bringing Unbroken to the screen, and that was to do right by the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini. Simple as that. And that she has accomplished in every way. This was clearly evident as the film got its local sendoff Sunday afternoon with multiple screenings for guild and Oscar voters as well as the pundit crowd, which couldn’t wait to jump on Twitter to give an instant verdict on the film’s Oscar chances.
After all, this one is a big target, as it is the last realistic Best Picture contender to debut and it has been handicapped, virtually since it went into production, as the one to beat. Is it? Who knows?
Some viewers sent off mixed vibes afterward, though most seemed at the very least to admire it. A few cautioned about the realistic scenes of torture that Zamperini, played magnificently by Jack O’Connell, endured at the hands of the prison camp’s evil officer, known as The Bird and portrayed effectively by Japanese rock superstar Miyavi (who admitted he had never before acted and didn’t even start to learn English until a few years ago). Those scenes, while intense, seem wholly necessary to really show what this WWII hero and ultimate survivor went through. I sat transfixed throughout the 2-hour-and-17-minute running time. A person next to me complained about the torture but hey, the movie is called Unbroken for a reason. Jolie thankfully doesn’t sugarcoat the violent aspects of the story (as Steven Spielberg also refused to do in Saving Private Ryan’s harrowing D-Day invasion scenes). And nor should she. Zamperini lived through this all somehow. The least you can do is watch it to understand his incredible resilience. It gave me renewed respect for the horrors to which many of our fathers and grandfathers were subjected — and certainly even since then, in numerous other wars right up to today and the unimaginable terror coming out of the Middle East.
But this movie is not primarily about the horrors of war. We have seen that many times. Unbroken is about so much more. It’s not just about the survival of this man, it is about sheer willpower and belief in yourself. Zamperini’s incredible story brought me to tears at least twice, even more so for the exemplary life he led after making it through unspeakable conditions. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see it finally hit the big screen, though at the post-screening Q&A Jolie said she did show the film to him on her laptop shortly before he died earlier this year at age 97. And what was his review? She basically begged off that question saying, “you’re watching somebody at a certain point in their life, toward the end of their life, watching their whole life unfold. And you’re sitting there as they do it.”
Sitting directly across the aisle from me today was his daughter Cynthia, son Luke, and grandson Clay, as well as horror filmmaker Mick Garris, his son-in-law who originally made a non-fiction film on his father-in-law’s life. He is credited as an Executive Producer on this one as well.
That documentary version aside, Zamperini’s story has taken nearly 60 years to get to the screen as producer Matthew Baer said at the Q&A, which in addition to Jolie included O’Connell, Miyavi and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Co-stars Garrett Hedlund and Domnhall Gleeson (absolutely superb) joined the earlier SAG Q&A. Talk about perseverance. At one time in 1957 Universal had planned to make it with Tony Curtis in the lead. It was only when Laura Hillenbrand wrote the definitive book, and then Jolie found a cinematic way into it, that we have finally gotten this version. And what a movie. The sheer craft of filmmaking is all over this one. It is beautifully directed by Jolie, who definitively proves, after a promising but largely unseen helming debut with In The Land Of Blood And Honey, that she has the chops behind the camera as well as in front of it. She pulls off highly difficult scenes in shark-infested waters, as well as in the confined spaces of a B-24 bomber, not to mention finding just the right tone for those grim prison camp scenes.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have 11-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Deakins as your DP. Or Tim Squyres (Life Of Pi) and William Goldenberg (Argo) doing the editing. Or Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson as the collective that turned out the sharp screen adaptation of Hillenbrand’s best seller. Or that Alexander Desplat contributes yet another great score. And on and on. Its awards prospects appear to be strong in a year where no clear front runner has completely dominated the conversation. There’s no question Universal plans to give this Christmas Day release its full firepower.
As WWII movies go I have a lot of favorites: The Great Escape, The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Guns Of Navarone, Patton, Pork Chop Hill, Saving Private Ryan, King Rat and yet another from this year, Fury (ironically starring Jolie’s husband, Brad Pitt). Add Unbroken to my list, and for a very different reason. This movie is inspiring for the sheer way Zamperini conducted himself then, a spiritual approach that becomes very moving to watch, particularly in a scene where a beaten Zamperini is forced at gunpoint to hold an enormously heavy object aloft without dropping it. Yes, it can be grueling but it is also remarkably life-affirming, something that instantly connected Jolie to an epic story that she has given a personal human touch.
“Reading (Hillenbrand’s) book it wasn’t about heroics and it wasn’t about this giant adventure this man lived,” she said. “It was about what he came to understand in his life, and as I read the book I became inspired, and I felt better about life and I was reminded of the strength of the human spirit. And I was reminded that anytime I would see an obstacle to try and smile at it and make me better. And this is what Louie gave us. And so I really wanted to be around this story, to understand his story, to honor walking in his footsteps. What would that be? Really, I wanted to share his story and shout it from the rooftops.”