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'Unbroken' movie review: Angelina Jolie directs conventional but inspirational WWII drama
on December 22, 2014 at 7:00 AM, updated December 25, 2014 at 5:03 PM
As Angelina Jolie made the publicity rounds ahead of the release this week of her World War II drama "Unbroken," there was one theme she hit over and again: She loves directing. She really, really loves directing.
She loves it so much, she said, that she's made up her mind to retire from acting upon the completion of her handful of in-the-pipeline projects and focus instead on her behind-the-camera career. While that will be received as sad news for fans of "Maleficent," "Tomb Raider" and other entries on Jolie's on-screen resume, it's hardly a total wash.
Jolie's capable helming of the World War II drama "Unbroken" -- opening Christmas Day -- proves that. It's only her second directoral outing -- after 2011's "In the Land of Blood and Honey" -- but it shows she's got more to offer than just her acting skills.
That's not to say she doesn't have room to grow as a filmmaker. As glossy and well-produced as "Unbroken" is, it doesn't stray too terribly far from Hollywood convention. In fact, its very story structure is so traditional that it's mirrored by Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," another battlefield drama set for release this award season.
In both films, we get a recounting of the astonishing deeds of American military heroes. In both films, we're introduced to those heroes with a heart-pounding battlefield scene. And both films cut abruptly from that initial sequence to one from that hero's childhood -- and both set in church, no less.
Granted, they're still very different films foundationally. Neither comes close to glorifying war, but where "American Sniper" refuses to back down from the harsh, blood-soaked realities of battlefield life (as does "Fury," the recent World War II tank drama featuring Jolie's other half, Brad Pitt), Jolie's "Unbroken" is awash in amber shades of nostalgia and sentimentality.
As much as anything, that probably has a lot to do with Jolie's personal relationship with the subject of the movie, Louis Zamperini -- whom she met, befriended and whose story she became so awed by that she decided she had to turn it into a movie.
It's easy to see why. Zamperini's story is an incredible one -- one of survival, determination and personal strength in the face of staggeringly long odds. It also lends itself well to Hollywood's three-act tradition.'Unbroken' movie trailer, directed by Angelina Jolie Due in theaters on Christmas 2014
Zamperini was a 9-year-old whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking delinquent when his big brother gave him a figurative shake and insisted he was better than that. Little Louis listened. He would pull himself together and go on to become a member of the U.S. track team and participate alongside one Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Zamperini didn't medal, but he earned notice for running one of the fastest laps ever recorded by then in the 5,000-meter distance event. But that was just the 19-year-old Olympic rookie's warm-up act, he insisted. His real goal was to gain experience in international competition and then start preparing for Tokyo, where the 1940 Olympics were scheduled be held.
He would eventually get to Japan -- but not the way he expected. As it turns out, the 1940 Games would be cancelled due to World War II, and Zamperini would trade his running shoes for combat boots, becoming a bombardier aboard an Army Air Force B-24 bomber. In 1943, his plane went down in the Pacific. He would spend more than 47 days in a life raft, living off of rainwater and what fish could be snatched out of the ocean beneath.
Many World War II dramas have been made on less, but that takes us through only the first hour of Jolie's film, which unspools like two separate movies. The first is a lost-at-sea drama, set largely aboard that life raft. And for what comes next?
Zamperini and his fellow survivor were rescued, but by a Japanese Navy ship. They would be sent to Japanese POW camps, where Zamperini would spend the rest of the war, suffering mistreatment and regular torture at the hands of his captors.
But he wouldn't give up -- he wouldn't break. "If you can take it, you can make it," he would tell himself, determined to defeat the Japanese by merely surviving.
Those scenes of torture in "Unbroken" aren't graphic, at least not by modern movie standards. (This isn't "Saw" by any means.) Jolie seems determined to err mostly on the side of good taste where that is concerned. But they are difficult to watch regardless, if only because of the base cruelty involved.
Zamperini is played in the film by English actor Jack O'Connell, who starred recently in the modern-day prison drama "Starred Up" -- although audiences aren't in danger of confusing the two. These characters are so completely different, and O'Connell's approach to each is so different, that he's almost unrecognizable from one movie to the next.
It's an impressive transformation, and an illustration of O'Connell's range as an actor.
Also impressive is Jolie. Granted, the early, gushing coronations of her by some as a shoo-in for a Oscar nomination for "Unbroken" now appear to be the product of so much starstruck swooning. She exhibits a steady filmmaking hand with her handling of the film, but it isn't exactly game-changing where the art of filmmaking in concerned.
Where the trajectory of her career is concerned, however -- well, that's a different story.
I have trouble believing that even after she "retires" from acting she won't be lured back in front of the camera for the occasional starring role. She's a celebrity of the highest magnitude. She belongs in the spotlight. Still, based on the strength of "Unbroken," Jolie's dreams of a directing career appear every bit as intact as Zamperini's spirit.
3 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: Angelina Jolie directs a World War II drama based on the real-life experiences of Olympic athlete and former POW Louis Zamperini, who spent 42 days in a life raft after crash-landing in the Pacific, followed by years in a Japanese prison camp.
What works: In addition to telling a remarkable and inspiring story, it's a glossy and well-acted film, as Jolie shows a steady hand in only her second directoral outing.
What doesn't: It's also fairly conventional stuff, as Jolie sticks close to Hollywood tradition in what ends up being a largely reverential and sentimental biography.
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Takamasa Ishihara, John D'Leo.
Rating: PG-13, for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
Where: Find New Orleans and Baton Rouge showtimes.>
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