Let’s talk about the phrase “Oscar bait” for a moment. On the one hand, it’s easily among the most annoying, faux-intellectual verbal short-hands in all of filmdom. Especially during this time of year where it gets callously thrown at every major awards contender in the conversation, and boy does it get old fast, although for a few years around the mid-2000’s it seemed to be going away for a while. But when The King’s Speech beat The Social Network for Best Picture at the Oscars a few years back, the term has returned in full force, and now every pseudo-intellectual, beginner film fan thinks it makes them sound soooo observant and clever whenever they use it to describe something. In this reviewer’s experience, the term ‘Oscar bait’ now-a-days could be used to describe just about any film released after August given that it has an even remotely serious tone and feature actors/is made by a director that has received at least some amount of acclaim in their careers. Talk about walking on egg shells.
But on the other hand, if one were to label Angelina Jolie’s new film Unbroken as being ‘Oscar bait’, I personally wouldn’t complain. The film tells the life story of Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned WW2 soldier turned prisoner of war, and details his many exploits and journeys throughout the earlier period of his life. And trust me when I say that even if you’ve never heard of Louis Zamperini or anything he did before, you’ve already seen this film. It’s a rare modern film that contains the same type of cloying, melodramatic storytelling which dominated most major awards contenders of the 1980’s and 90’s, except films back then at least knew how to deliver their sentiments in ways that felt congruent with the cinematic trends of the times. But seeing a film in 2014 aim for the same dramatic heights in the same way is a bewildering experience to say the least. However, this sort of filmmaking has thankfully all but died off by now (or at the very least has started to go unnoticed by most major awards circles), apart from a few exceptions such as this one.
Credit where credit is due, folks. One cannot fault this film for its casting, and relative newcomer Jack O’Connell turns in a stellar lead performance as Louis Zamperini. He does the best possible job with an underwritten part, and absolutely makes the role his own. Whenever there are moments where Louis (as portrayed in the film) shines through as being relatable or empathetic, it is solely by virtue of O’Connell’s acting chops. And cinematographer Roger Deakins provides the film with a very polished, yet nuanced sense of visual flair. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that anything creative or unexpected the film does visually is most likely due to Deakins’ involvement. These elements are further proof that genuine quality and effort can occasionally prevail over a shoddy screenplay or lackluster storytelling.
For all its good intentions and quality production values, Unbroken still suffers from slavishly adhering to the typical Hollywood biopic formula, without ever transcending it for a moment. It practically ticks all the boxes one would expect to see in this sort of film: flashback framing device narrative, spanning from the lead’s early adolescence to old age, as well as a blatantly reincorporated lesson about never backing down which the subject of the biopic takes with him wherever he goes, and so on. It’s actually not impossible to avoid and/or subvert tired Hollywood clichés without sacrificing a compelling story in the process. Just last year, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece The Wind Rises was able to tell a straightforward story about a real life figure without having to subject itself to a bunch of shitty, contrived plot devices.
Despite having an entire feature length film surrounding him and his story, this film’s incarnation of Louis Zamperini hardly ever feels like a fully fleshed out or realistic character. The story paints him in the most clichéd, broadest strokes imaginable, and he’s therefore never really able to connect as a person. He’s determined, but naive. And he never backs down, like super duper OMG aren’t you so freaking impressed by how much this guy *doesn’t* back down at all – a motif which is repeated ad nauseam in some of the most manipulative ways imaginable. As mentioned before, Jack O’Connell tries his damndest to breathe life into this cardboard cutout of a character and of course no disrespect to the real life man, but what could’ve been a truly engaging and dynamic role is reduced to the most basic of character traits without anything beneath the surface to chew on.
One of the biggest bummers as a film fan is watching something that is so clearly trying to effect you as an audience member in one way, but it isn’t working at all. Examples of this would be a comedy that isn’t funny, a horror film that’s not scary, or in the case of Unbroken, a dramatic film that contains hardly any legitimate emotion and leaves no impact. This tends to be particularly embarrassing, despite the best efforts of its by-the-numbers screenplay or the constant reaction shots to extras looking on with envy. For instance, take the scene where every prisoner in the camp Zamperini is imprisoned in is ordered to punch him in the face – something which should feel raw and gruesome in the moment is instead played up as a heroic act of martyrdom, as the music swells up and Zamperini yells at the others to keep hitting him harder. That’s just one moment of many similarly overwrought sequences, and if your jaw isn’t dropping to the floor every five minutes, you aren’t where this film wants you to be.
While not a poorly made or acted film, Unbroken is a prime example of safe, crowd-pleasing Hollywood biopic filmmaking – designed primarily to impress critics and awards circuits for the few months it matters early on in the year, but will leave little to no lasting impression, and probably be forgotten entirely in the years to come. Maybe if this film wasn’t so blatant in its intentions, or at the very least brought something new or worthwhile to the story, it wouldn’t be met with such cynicism by this reviewer. Nonetheless, the incredible life story of Louis Zamperini has yet to be done justice onscreen, and this forgettable dud hardly gets the job done. Take it or leave it.