When a movie about an Olympian and a war hero releases on Christmas Day, it’s easy to see exactly what the studio is thinking: The Academy Awards. And that’s fine. Films rarely suffer if the studio markets them as an award contender. Where films can suffer is when the filmmakers are making them in a way that’s supposed to win awards, and while I’m not in anyone’s head who was involved, that feeling runs the spine of Unbroken.
Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who is famous not only for being an Olympic 5k runner, but for spending 47 days on a raft at sea and then getting captured by the Japanese. Once captured, he’s placed in an prisoner of war camp and tortured throughout his stay there.
There’s a lot going on with that story, so it seems like this should be one of the more enjoyable movies of the year. Really, it has just about it all, other than a romantic plot. But really, it’s a bit refreshing to see a biopic that doesn’t feel the need to shoehorn a love interest into the plot. Sadly, that’s where the refreshing story choices end.
Most of the problems seem to be with either effects or choices from the director. For example, the opening scene of the film involves a plane getting shot down. In that scene, the acting is fine. There’s no Charlton Heston, but everyone in it does an above-adequate job. With even a minimal amount of correct decisions, that should be something that’s intense and captivating. Yet I was fairly bored throughout the entire sequence. And when the opening to a movie bores you, that’s not a great place to start off a movie-watching experience.
One thing I will gives props to both Jolie and the Coens for is they actually got the running scenes mostly right. Most movies that involve any form of competitive running are a pain for former track athletes to watch. That isn’t the case with Unbroken. Other than everyone finishing within five seconds of each other in the Olympic 5k and it seeming like all the applause was directed at the eighth place finisher, most of the things involving his training and his meets are spot-on.
Despite my problems with the story, O’Connell’s performance made the majority of the movie a thoroughly enjoyable experience. He proves that he’s going to have quite the career ahead of himself, regardless of the sort of movies he’s working on. Obviously, the scenes where he’s being tortured are being talked about, but it’s the quieter moments that he does just as well. That’s shows some remarkable range, and I would have zero complaints if he found his way into being nominated for one of the acting awards.
I hate to use the phrase “Oscar bait”, but it seems that’s what biopics have turned into these days. Unbroken is no different. There are moments that are clearly meant to ooze every bit of emotional stakes out of a story that would have likely had enough of an impact without trying overly hard to hone in on those specific emotions. And it’s a shame that’s what’s going to overshadow multiple great performances and some decent writing. It’s a prime example of poor choices and questionable direction getting in the way of something that should have been left to stand on its own.