Dir: Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie is working hard to establish herself as a more of a director rather than just an actress. Yet, her first feature film ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ still hasn’t had a release in most places (it was very limited in America) and was not very well received. Her new film ‘By the Sea’ is currently on a wider international release though not doing well at the box office at all. ‘Unbroken’ is by far her most successful film to date, and while she shows some promise as a director, there are certain weaknesses here that feel like they could have been remedied quite easily to improve the movie considerably.
Based on the biography by Laura Hillenbrand (‘Seabiscuit’) telling much of the life story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who went from being an Olympic athlete with a promising career, to becoming a prisoner of war in a camp commanded by a brutal corporal nicknamed ‘Bird’ (Miyavi).
At 137 minutes it’s not a short running time, yet there still feels like too much has been crammed in, as the film in some way covers Zamperini’s entire life (if you include the end slideshow) and much of it is lingered on, when really it wouldn’t suffer from a bit of trimming and tightening up. Jolie seems to think the way of maximizing the impact of what this man went through is to show it all, every moment, every punch, sometimes pausing between so that they sink in. The reality is that it would probably be more effective to move things along at a better pace so that the tough situations he finds himself in occur more rapidly, so that things get worse quickly and it feels more intensively unrelenting. We see bullying, beatings, dog fights, being lost at sea, and his time as a prisoner of war. I’m happy to agree that it’s a fascinating life story and he was a tough man to survive it all, but there’s a distinct lack of joy, so while we watch him endure hardship there’s little relief to help the audience avoid feeling like they have endured some hardship too.
All beautifully filmed, technically it’s hard to fault and that’s really where the little enjoyment can be found. The scenes in the plane are particularly good, if there was any aspect of this film I don’t mind it lingering on it’s these. With cinematography by Roger Deakins all the different periods and locations look superb, especially scenes such as those in the planes and on a life raft in the midst of the sea surrounded by nothing but water.
The entire cast is very strong, especially the lead Jack O’Connell (‘Skins’) who lost a large amount of weight for the role so that he would appear frighteningly skinny after being out at sea, and is now considered a ‘rising star’ (according to BAFTA). Other cast members are also on the rise such as Domhnall Gleeson (‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’) who is very good as a crew-member who suffers alongside Zamperini. Clearly though it’s Miyavi who gives O’Connell the most competition on screen with a role that allows for him to be exceptionally harsh and completely dominate the space and screen.
The Coen brothers were involved as rewriters, though I can’t understand quite why, this allows for none of their unusual style, and I think displays none of it. They’re great screenwriters but I can’t see what that could bring to the table for this project and it really feels in the end like Jolie and the Coens have somehow missed something in refining this, possibly just the sense of what to cut out. There really is no need to tell his full story from childhood, somewhere there needed to be more cuts and though I understand the desire to show formative moments that will be referred back to later, some of them could just as easily just be described, for example his mother cooking niocci which we see and are also told about, both times in full length and detail.
My brother made the valid suggestion that the film might have been greatly improved simply by rearranging the structure of events to be less linear. Possibly by running three main time periods in his life and cutting between them at certain points it would make the film feel less like a trudge trough all the hardship, and the comparative points would be more naturally highlighted. When you think about it, that might have really changed the whole feel. It would soften the blows as it were, though maybe that’s what Jolie wanted to avoid, I can only imagine that it was her intention to drive the point home that he went from the frying pan into the fire, with his life getting increasingly difficult for many years.
Maybe with more time and experience and when partnered with the right project Angelina Jolie will fully make that transition from actress to renowned director, as others have done before her, but I don’t think she’s there quite yet. Her latest film ‘By the Sea’ has sunk at the box office, apparently backed by the studio more for the sake of getting Jolie on board for more acting roles rather than to showcase her directorial talents. That’s a shame, I think she has some talent and with backing that believe in her and want to see her skill refined I think she could direct a film that really works. Sadly as fascinating as Zamperini’s life was, this film doesn’t quite do it justice as somewhere in recounting all this it loses a key element of why he survived, the joy of life.