I’ve been curious why Unbroken hasn’t been making noise thus far during awards season. Laura Hillenbrand’s astonishing biography on Louis Zamperini provided several months of hype, but Angelina Jolie’s film adaptation currently boasts a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The clear blue skies of the film’s opening scene caught my attention at last night’s Christmas Night viewing, along with this cringe-worthy line: “I’m going to light it up like Christmas!” Yep, Unbroken is that kind of holiday film.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with Unbroken aside from the severely melodramatic supporting performances. While I was expecting a steady dose of motivational and cleverly-placed lines, I wasn’t quite prepared for young Louis Zamperini exclaiming, “I’m nothing. Let me be nothing.” It’s this type of melodrama that has one person sobbing and another rolling their eyes. Cutesy more than poignant, Jolie’s direction allows for a collective holding of hands as she presses hard on all the typical Holiday buttons.
If one doesn’t know the story by now, the Italian-American Zamperini competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survived 45 days at sea during World War II and was later tormented by a Japanese officer known as “The Bird.” It’s unfathomable what Zamperini experienced, and newcomer Jack O’Connell plays him with conviction and grit. He brought the goods earlier this year in Starred Up and raised his game for Unbroken, but I can’t say the same for Garrett Hedlund (Fitzgerald) and Takamasa Ishihara (Watanabe aka “The Bird).
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First of all, the casting of Hedlund bothers me more than his actual performance. I’m guessing the Coen Brothers might be responsible given they co-wrote the screenplay and worked with him on Inside Llewyn Davis, but when will Hedlund drop the James Dean/Beat Poet persona? We’ve seen it over and over the last couple years, and directors seem to be exploiting his voice rather than his acting talent. At one point in Unbroken, Hedlund’s Fitzgerald delivers a speech — an actual speech in front of a crowd — with an overt growl that sounds more like Abraham Lincoln (at least what’s been documented) than a weary prisoner. We know Hedlund boasts a unique voice… give us something more.
As far as Ishihara, his performance resembles a movie “baddie” rather than a frightening historical figure. While O’Connell digs deep as Zamperini, Ishihara seems acutely aware of the camera. But even if the portrayal was spot on, the dialogue afforded to Ishihara in his final scene will have some viewers crying from laughter. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s a typical Hollywood move: repetitive dialogue connecting with an already familiar line, a heavy-handed score and pure melodrama. It might have worked for a Broadway play, but it doesn’t work for a feature film. The scene ultimately highlights the idea of “The Bird” more than O’Connell’s outstanding performance.
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Jolie didn’t make a bad movie, and Unbroken might have even won Best Picture 20 years ago, but you can’t throw the star under the bus — especially in a biopic — and let the antagonist destroy one of the most powerful scenes.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.