Movie Review: Unbroken

It probably does not help that I did not want to see Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken the moment the trailer started. Apart from how the film was promoted so much I started to hate it, the “inspirational true story” angle did not work on me at all. It is the most overplayed, stupid, and boring concepts in storytelling. You will never convince me a movie like Miracle or those similar are good; they are garbage.

Furthermore, based on information provided by the rampant advertising, the movie is about a soldier in WWII taken prisoner by the Japanese, and the depiction of the Japanese is exactly how I expected. I understand at the time, the Axis Powers were some of the worst human beings on the planet, but as of late, the portrayal of the Japanese in film has been borderline racist.

I know full well the atrocities they committed against the Chinese in Manchuria, and believe me when I say, General Shiro Ishii of Unit 731 makes Josef Mengele look like Mother Teresa, but in films like Yimou Zhang’s The Flowers of War, the Japanese are made out to be barbaric, ignorant, and monstrous to point of being cartoonish and offensive, without any sense of rationality or honor.

Once again, they were the worst, before we humbled them with atomic fire, but can we at least get a respectable depiction like in Clint Eastwood’s Letter From Iwo Jima? In that film, we understood the Japanese as fully fleshed-out people; even the crazy ones were relatable. Everything else I have seen is disrespectful and gross. For Christ’s sake, Nazis in film are better rounded than the Japanese!

And that brings us to Unbroken.

            In the Land of Blood and Honey was Jolie’s directorial debut, which she also wrote. I feel bad for insulting one of the hottest mothers in existence, but it really was not that good of a movie; the kind you absolutely do not want to start with if you want to be a director. It was well meaning with its intentions; a story about Bosnian genocide, a topic people of my generation probably know nothing about, but it fails entirely in execution.

The elements were there; a story about love and survival in one of the worst European conflicts since WWII, but the lack of focus and a schizophrenic structure made the film a struggle to sit through.   Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives from Nicholas Winding Refn had their own ways of telling their strange stories, but they were at least coherent and focused. Both are very abstract art films, but you can figure out what is happening, with a little bit more thought required.

In Blood and Honey, everything was all over the place, the characters’ personalities and motivations went more up and down than an erection, and it was harder to follow what was going on because some information is given that is never explained. There is so much implication, but it is even harder to understand what is being implied because we do not know what is happening. We are meant to assume we know what is happening.

It was clear to me that the film was made and released on clout alone. I would not call it a vanity project, but I assume Jolie thought it would gain notoriety because her name was on it, and it was a subject she genuinely believed in. But a reputation does not make a good movie, a lesson made evident with the film After Earth.
As a directorial debut, it would have helped if she took note from works similar to hers. Blood and Honey would have been amazing and more compelling had it been modeled after Schindler’s List. But as it stands, her film is a mish-mash of scenes that only work together if you disregard the basic tenants of structure.

I could go on forever, but I will move on and tell you about Jolie’s latest release. Have the problems of her first feature crept into her second, or has she learned her lesson?

To my complete and genuine surprise, she has indeed learned her lesson. With assistance from the Cohen brothers providing the script and adopting a look and feel similar to a Clint Eastwood movie, Jolie made up for her flawed debut in more ways than one. It has its issues, but compared to Blood and Honey, it is quite exceptional.

It reminds me very much of J. Edgar in style and structure. I would not call it a copy, but I was glad to see Jolie barrowed the directorial techniques of her contemporaries. The script was also a contributing factor after the Cohens took charge of writing and made everything work. However, I think the movie would have turned out better had they also directed.

The story follows Louie Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell, an Olympic Athlete turned bombardier at the start of WWII. The film chronicles his life from a mischievous childhood, to a brutal few years as a POW in Japan. You can predict where the story will go because this is something you have seen before.

It does not do anything different, but because it is a biopic, all the tropes and clichés are admissible. If you watch the trailer, then see the movie, and complain about how predictable it was, you are stupid. Unbroken does not hide what it is; it knows it is a true story about courage in the face of adversary, and if you could not figure that out based on the promotional material, you have not watched enough movies. If that is the kind of movie you want to see, you will not be disappointed.

It serves its purpose well.

In addition, the movie feels like it is fishing for Oscars. Using those tropes and clichés, against the backdrop of a story and period relatable to Baby Boomers, the movie was made to be a nominee for the awards season. That is not a bad thing, but it reinforces the feeling of how manufactured the movie feels. Compared to other titles like any Adam Sandler or Transformers movie, Unbroken at least had more effort put into its production.

The first half feels very cheap with CG effects that were serviceable in some places, but awful in others. I do not know how much this movie cost, but it shows loud and clear. It gets better in the second half because nothing else requires the use of CG, creating a sense of realism that really makes up for the first half.

Performances are the main strength of the film. O’Connell does a decent enough job with the material. You can really see the torture he put himself through to immerse himself in the role of a prisoner of war. That being said, moments of O’Connell playing Zamperini in a normal setting were practically non-existent. This is a minor complaint, but it would have been nice to see how he would act in an ordinary situation.

Another performance of note is Takamasa Ishihara as Watanabe, the commandant of the POW camp, and Zamperini’s primary abuser. He was good as an antagonist, with a cold stare on par with Ralph Fiennes as Amon Geoth from Schindler’s List, but that is about it. There is promotional material selling him as a well-rounded villain, but I do not see it. Nothing against Ishihara, but Watanabe is about as plain a villain as you can make. It feels like Jolie and Ishihara had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do with the character, but it was not put to film; there was implication without anything implied. All he has going as a character is how scary he looks.

Speaking of which, the portrayal of the Japanese was more respectable than I predicted. No one is inherently evil, or cartoonish to the point of being racist. The way they act is not unlike people just doing their jobs because their leaders told them to do it. The fact we do not see them do anything terrible helps this idea. Even Watanabe, a guy who looks like a scarier version of Byung-hun Lee with an insatiable bloodlust, exercises some degree of restraint when beating Zamperini.

There were a few minor problems that are not important, but I need to address them:

In the beginning, something happens that is not explained before hand. You can make your own assumptions, but it would have been better had there been an explanation.

The brother character, even though he is in the movie for maybe twenty minutes, is there solely to deliver inspirational advice. Granted he is gone before you realize he is there, but his purpose for being is a joke.

Usually I do not complain about length, but this was a very long sit. You will feel the movie drag at times where you just want it to move on. It is not painful to watch, but it is tedious at times.

I recommend Unbroken if you want to see a biopic about a WWII veteran who fought in the Pacific, a subject not seen too often in film. As stated before, it is long, tedious, and something you have seen before, with the theme of persevering in face of adversity. If that is something you want to see, buy a ticket. Otherwise, save your money for The Imitation Game or Big Eyes, which I have yet to review.

 

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