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Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ begs for Oscars, but is an unbearable torture-fest

By Dylan Galper / Staff Writer

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“Unbroken”

Directed by: Angelina Jolie

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara

Rated PG-13 for war violence including sequences of brutality, and brief language

Grade: C

The tagline for “Unbroken” reads “Survival, Resilience, Redemption.” This should tell you everything you need to know about what director Angelina Jolie hoped to achieve. 

Longing for an Oscar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many in Hollywood see it as the crowning achievement — the pinnacle of a successful career in film. Most of the films that come out this time of year do so because someone involved with its production thought it would be Oscar-worthy. And, despite the fact that the question “Which film was the year’s best?” is invariably a matter of opinion, the Academy typically does a good job at pinpointing some of the year’s best offerings.

It has become abundantly clear, however, that over the Academy Awards’ 86-year history, the Academy has an affinity for a certain type of picture. Though the subject may vary, voters most definitely favor big-budgeted films with familiar, easily decipherable plots and themes that champion the human will to endure even under the harshest of circumstances. With those cinematic champions grabbing gold, the voters then eschew the more esoteric films that experiment with style and explore more exotic themes. 

One of the Academy’s favorite genres is the historical drama, a genre that generally provides it with the qualities it desires in a film — a fact the makers of “Unbroken” were undoubtedly cognizant of. But, while “Unbroken” may share the same genre, high production values and talent both behind and in front of the camera with past Best Picture winners like “Schindler’s List,” “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years a Slave,” the similarities end there.

The film starts out well enough, opening with a gorgeous shot of the sky as planes slowly and majestically emerge from the clouds. The following sequence is tense and thrilling with action that resembles other war films like “Saving Private Ryan” and the recent “Lone Survivor” in its stirring, chaotic execution.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film never lives up to the promise of its opening shots. Instead, Jolie launches us on a redundant and, at times, insufferable journey through the wartime imprisonment of American Olympic runner and bombardier Louie Zamperini. After his crew’s plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean, Louie and two other survivors endure nearly a month at sea only then to be captured and imprisoned by the Japanese.

There is a brilliant story of “survival, resilience and redemption” in here somewhere, but, rather than fully capitalizing on it, Jolie establishes a weak correlation between Zamperini’s will to compete and his will to survive and wallops us with two hours of unbearable torture — which was unbearable to withstand, I’m sure, but almost as unbearable to watch. The suffering of an American POW permeates the final two hours, and we become more familiar with Zamperini’s battered and bruised face than we do with the man behind it.

If the action on screen fails to pique your interest, you can at least enjoy how beautiful it all is. The always-reliable cinematographer Roger Deakins (known best for his work with the film’s acclaimed writers, Joel and Ethan Coen) should earn his 12th Oscar nod — his work in “Unbroken” is brilliant. Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, also manages to do the best he can with the thin character he has been offered. It’s a feverishly intense performance, and we feel his sorrow and pain even if we still don’t know who Zamperini really is by the film’s end.

Unfortunately, neither of these qualities is good enough to redeem what is eventually a tedious and unrewarding enterprise. We are so exhausted by the end of Zamperini’s journey that the scene in which he is reunited with his family, a typically emotional cinematic setup, barely manages to conjure up any compassion. 

Similarly, the filmmakers appear so blinded by the sight of Oscar gold that they forgot what makes these films work. We see the “survival,” but where is the “resilience” or the “redemption,” and what reason are we given to believe another prisoner wouldn’t survive similar circumstances? 

Unfortunately, no Oscar-worthy film accompanies the Oscar-worthy tagline.

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Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ begs for Oscars, but is an unbearable torture-fest