Monday, February 2, 2015

"Unbroken": No, Wait, Totally Broken

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

If people who know me know one thing about my film preferences, it’s that I absolutely adore the Coen Brothers.  As writers and directors, I think they are some of the most clever and most entertaining content producers working today.  So I was hyped to hear that they were writing another film called Unbroken, even though I was completely oblivious as to what the film was about.  And then I saw that it was co-written with two other guys.  And it was directed by the mostly untested Angelina Jolie.  And then the reviews came out with lukewarm reception at best.  So I filed the film away in my brain to watch at a later date, and lo and behold, the film still manages to nab some technical nominations for this year’s Academy Awards.  And though the cinematography is admittedly beautiful, my initial suspicions about the lack of true Coen influence proved to be mostly accurate.

Based on a true story, the film follows Louie Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete who joined the war effort in World War II.  His unit’s plane goes down in the Atlantic Ocean, and only he and two other crew members survive.  The first half of the film focuses on alternately establishing Zamperini’s Olympic career through flashback and showing the hardship of surviving on a raft for over a month.  In light of the Olympic events having next to no significance in the story aside from establishing his claim to fame amongst the other nameless troops, the flashbacks turn out to be pointless exercises in overly establishing Zamperini as a character, who’s only defining characteristic seems to be his willingness to endure great suffering.

This is only accentuated in the film’s latter half, when he is “rescued” from the raft by a Japanese ship, only to become a member of a POW camp.  The camp’s commanding officer uses Zamperini as an example, beating him senseless for purposely imagined offenses to demonstrate that no one in the camp is special.  The film attempts showing Zamperini as a passive resistor, but ultimately he just comes off as one who can take immense amounts of physical pain.  It’s reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ, where the focus is on the violence rather than the purpose for the violence or the protagonist’s journey to overcome it.

And yet, paradoxically, the film remains safely within the bounds of a PG-13 rating, not even allowing the audience the minimal catharsis of seeing the true extent of Zamperini’s injury and struggle.  Instead, director Angelina Jolie portrays her actors in the most pristine light possible, smudging dirt on them to give them the appearance of pain and suffering but never going so far as to show them emoting beyond simple solemnity.  The film feels like a child posing its toys for scenes that resemble other survivor stories, but lacks the depth of understanding to add meaning or character so as to make a unique and compelling tale.

So how do the Coen’s factor into this?  Well, other than the occasional bit of snappy dialogue, I have a genuinely hard time parsing what their contributions to this project were.  It’s so lacking in their usual creative spark and innovative drive that I’m surprised that they would attribute their real names to this instead of a pseudonym.  Though perhaps an interesting directorial experiment for Angelina Jolie, the film itself is ultimately a failure, a shallow demonstration of form over substance that tarnishes the reputation of two great film writers.  Give this one a pass.

Have a favorite Coen Brothers project?  How about an obscure one where they didn’t sit in the directors’ chairs?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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