Iris Chang

Film Review: Unbroken

At the SAG Awards Screening of the film Unbroken followed by a q+a with director Angelina Jolie and cast members Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Luke Treadaway and Miyavi.

Director Angelina Jolie and cast members of the film Unbroken at the Screen Actors Guild Awards screening, Florence Gould Hall, NYC.

Director Angelina Jolie and cast members of the film Unbroken at the Screen Actors Guild Awards screening, Florence Gould Hall, NYC.

Unbroken is a richly shot, well scored film made with an intelligent, unflinching eye. Based on the Laura Hillenbrand book of the same name about the life of WWII veteran Louis Zamperini, the opening air battle sequence is truly heart stopping and will pull you in through sheer excitement alone. Yet, there's not much that's new in terms of narrative, historical or emotional content after that or in the film as a whole. There is no standout acting performance to speak of as the star of this workman-like bio-pic is the unceasing brutality. It is incredibly hard to take, especially when the emotional payoff is already known before the film even begins and would be minimal at best as we never truly bond with the character of Louis, we merely pity him and his tragic lot. The flashback sequences of his childhood and rise to Olympic glory are standard Hollywood tug-at-the-heartstring issue. You've seen them played out in dozens of movies in the past. Bathed in slightly sepia hues, they're more interesting for the period footwear than anything else. They seem to have the same emotional distance that Jolie as an actor portrays so often and effectively. What the viewer of Unbroken needs is tangible insight into the driving forces inside Zamperini that kept him going in the most unbelievable situations that seemed to be never ending. The degree of soul shattered forgiveness the real life man had to find at the close of World War II and practice for the rest of his life (he passed away earlier this year) was surely stunning and, had it been a part of this film, could have taken it to another level entirely. I've seen this same story of epic, war induced suffering and post war healing realized to much greater effect in other films and stage plays, most notably, the one man play set on a bare Broadway stage, Primo, written by and starring the masterful Antony Sher. Granted, a different side of the horrors of WWII but I couldn't take my eyes off Mr. Sher or untether my heart from his during that show. He so engaged me on an intellectual, spiritual and emotional level, wholly unaided by sets, lighting, music or Foley effects, I never noticed the hours passing. As a story, Primo's footprint was firmly planted in the struggle for personal, spiritual and societal redemption vs. exiting the world on one's own terms to what could only be a less painful place, in equal measure. A battle that, in totality, turned out to be far more difficult than withstanding the tortures of the Nazi concentration camps alone. Unbroken is unfortunately mired in the dead eyed brutality of torture without ever exploring another, deeper level of narrative or emotional involvement. While watching the film I found my thoughts drifting to the late Iris Chang's devastating book, The Rape of Nanking. Chang's excruciating documentation of Japanese war atrocities wrought on the Chinese people (especially the women) of Nanking was one of the most difficult books I've ever read, yet, I found it hard to put down. She cannily wove the politics of war and racism with the redemptive power and bravery of ordinary individuals into her narrative non-fiction so you were caught up in a moment to moment emotional life that left nail marks embedded on the book cover. Throughout Unbroken I was anxiously waiting for the end of the war and some evolution in the throughline of the film, as well as a stop to the constant brutality. Unbroken, with it's many lingering and over-Foley-ed sequences of beatings, torture and imminent death, wraps up the end of the war and the remainder of Mr. Zamperini's life in less than five minutes rather than exploring to any degree what must have been a gut wrenching journey to home, acceptance, healing and his place in a post war world. I had the feeling that director Jolie got lost in the horrors and injustice of war and felt that one brief, simple, emotionally resonant shot of the blank faced O'Connell in the quarters of his torturer at the end of the hostilities would serve as a fitting coda. It doesn't. Nor does the shot, like most of the film, resonate to any degree as it's exhaustingly and distantly playing out.

I give great professional respect to Angelina Jolie for making an intelligent, beautifully shot and scored film that sadly falls short on emotional content and nuanced storytelling. Her work as a director is smart enough that I'm willing to invest my time in seeing what she creates next. I also thank her for being generous with her q+a answers, talking in depth about her approach, creative conundrums and directing process with an audience of her industry peers rather than defaulting to boring, sales pitch-y, pat replies crafted by a p.r. team. Ms. Jolie is one of the only people in the last few years (the brilliant actors Ann Dowd, Bruce Dern and director Ava DuVernay being the others) who graciously signed programs, shook hands, posed for photos and chatted with guild members after the panel discussion ended. That is very appreciated as a voting member of the unions because it's a major time commitment to attend all these screenings and panels which don't always allow audience questions. Last night, we stood in the freezing rain for an hour waiting to sign in. So props and kudos to cast and director for remaining available. I look forward to Angelina Jolie's next film and hope she continues to challenge herself as a director and filmmaker and open her story telling to include a richer, more complex emotional core.