More than any other film genre, the Oscars have had a love affair with war films. Starting in 1927 with first Best Picture winner Wings, there have been 20 winners based on historical wars including the Vietnam War and more popularly World War II. It is a genre that seems tailored for the award, especially with its mixture of common men becoming something greater and the inevitable cinema that comes with horrific war scenes. At best, they're inspirational journeys with subliminal patriotism. Why am I bringing this up? Because it does honestly feel like director Angelina Jolie read the handbook on Oscar bait with her admirable yet flawed war film Unbroken, which strives for hope but is stuck in conventions.
The film follows the journey of the "Torrance Tornado," better known as Louis Zamperini. As chronicled in his eponymous autobiography by Laura Hillenbrand, he is a man who definitely lived to succeed. After a rough start as an Italian hoodlum, he goes on to be an Olympic athlete and a prisoner of war in Japan: the two events of which the film centers around. To discredit Zamperini's accomplishments would be too offensive. The man did a lot that is summed up in the clumsy yet apt motivational line "If I can take it, I can make it." There's a sense that his life meant something, but it doesn't quite come through entirely within the film.
The upside is that Jolie is a surprisingly competent director who knows how to compose shots. With the story ricocheting from moment to moment, there's scenes involving plane fights, being lost at sea and internment camps that all feel like interesting standalone stories. To her credit, Jolie works with Roger Deakins to make a beautiful film full of awe inspiring visuals. With help from the reliable composer Alexandre Desplat, the score uplifts the important moments, leaving the audience in awe. This is all quite impressive considering that it does feel at times like it's trying to feel like an inspirational story as opposed to being one.
The issues with the film mostly lie in the latter half, which sees Zamperini become a POW after a freakish 47 days at sea. Up to this point, the film has managed to tow the line between period piece and inspiring drama perfectly with Jack O'Connell as the protagonist. He finds a reason to survive and even the editing between events creates an intensity that unfortunately falls off later on. If the first hour is about building Zamperini into a hero, the second half tries to destroy it, though not intentionally. With close to an hour being dedicated to the POW scenes in which he has a strange relationship with a guard (Takamasa Ishihara). It is in this half where the inspirational aspects begin to feel tacked on with many iconic moments that were used as poster art feel ridiculously paced and leave very little catharsis.
There's plenty of great moments in Unbroken, though the choice to be an epic and focus on a series of events as opposed to one specific is a little unfortunate. The moments that intrigue are quickly brushed by while the scenes that likely would sway towards Oscar bait feel too impersonal and long. This proves to be problematic when considering that the film's closing message was about finding faith and forgiveness in your enemy. We see the real life Zamperini end his life on good terms, but there isn't an understanding of how he got to that conclusion in the film. There's very little "faith" explored so much as it is endurance to some shocking and often brutal events. They can be inspiring, but the disconnect between execution and goal keeps it from feeling fully earned.
The upside is that Zamperini's life is too interesting to make for a bad movie. In fact, it could have made for a few great ones. Instead, this plays like a compilation that runs the gamut from breathtaking beauty to needless emotional beats. In time, the film can likely be separated from its Oscar bait nature, but it feels too intentionally interwoven at points to make it possible at the moment. If anything, that sacrifices its charm just a little and keeps it from being a great film. Still, as a war film, it looks and feels the part with ease. It is enjoyable, though a little underwhelming by the point of the credits. Still, I am glad to know more about this impressive man's life.
The issue with properly judging Unbroken is taking it out of the grander narrative. Since its trailer's premiere, there was an aura that it would be the definitive war film guaranteed a Best Picture award. Instead, it feels like people have unfairly bashed it for being something lesser. With 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, I do feel like it's a little too low, as I find it an adequate and engaging war film, but not the inspirational masterpiece many felt that they were promised. Could the last hour be toned down? Yes. Still, I come away feeling like it was striving to be the second hour of The Deer Hunter in that way by exploiting the horrors for character strength. It kind of worked, but the triumphant beats still felt staged in a way that stated it more than felt.
With that said, its lack of attention during the awards season feels oddly like a relief. It usually feels like inspirational films, especially Christmas Day releases, have unfair advantages and get pointless nominations. I do honestly believe that this will rack up a few nominations, but I don't see it as a front runner. I see it more as an admirable effort that delivered some of the time and struggled to be accepted at others. I wouldn't go as far as some to call the violent almost unnecessary, but I do feel like the POW scenes were the weakest part and felt oddly stretched out considering the quick moving scenes that summarized the film's first hour.
I don't necessarily feel like it is bound for too many definitive Oscars other than a Best Picture nomination and maybe Best Adapted Screenplay (though it has been missing out in that category, too). Even then, I come away intrigued and not entirely against the idea that Jolie could earn a Best Director nomination sometime in the future. It's just not going to be for this one. It is enjoyable and fun, but don't go in expecting the greatest, most uplifting film in history. It is a sure way to get disappointed.
Is Unbroken still capable of some major Oscars attention? Will Angelina Jolie ever get a Best Director nomination? Could the film have done with a shorter running time?