We're Getting A Lot Of These Inspirational True Stories This Time Of Year. Well, it *is* Oscar season.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: One-and-a-half wartime Daffy Ducks out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Olympian gets captured by Japanese during World War II, enjoys it even less than you'd expect.
Tagline: "Survival. Resilience. Redemption."
Better Tagline: "Just read the book."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: The story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is pretty goddamn incredible: juvenile delinquent turns high school track star turns Olympic sprinter who joins the Air Force and ends up a prisoner of war who spends two and a half years as a "guest" of the Japanese and one of their most notorious guards, Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe (Miyavi).
"Critical" Analysis: World War II still gets a lot of love from filmmakers because, as Studs Terkel put it, it was the "good war." Nazis still make the best movie bad guys (followed closely by the British) and if we dragged our feet establishing a second front or imprisoned a few thousand Japanese-Americans, it all worked out in the end, right?
The flipside to my obnoxiousness is how many truly extraordinary stories came out of that war. Zamperini's is just one of them, and if you want to get the true scope of his accomplishments and how remarkable his life was you should really check out Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, because Angelina Jolie's film doesn't do it justice.
This is, admittedly, great biopic material. And much hay has been made of director Angelina Jolie's award prospects for her second movie (did you miss In the Land of Blood and Honey? You're not alone). I can't speak for organizations that awarded the likes of Forrest Gump the highest accolades imaginable, but I wouldn't get my hopes up.
The movie hits all the requisite notes: troubled youth, early triumph, and immense hardship followed by eventual redemption. Trouble is, it feels like these are being checked off a list of an inspirational movie checklist, with little done to flesh out Zamperini, who emerges as less of a living, breathing human than a template for INDOMITABLE SPIRIT.
Also unfortunate is how every step in Zamperini's hero's journey is accentuated by Alexandre Desplat's on-the-nose score. Why let the actions of primary antagonist Watanabe paint a picture of him as a villain when the music has already given him a twirly mustache before he utters his first line?
Zamperini's life, documented so capably in Hillenbrand's book, really needed more than the perfunctory treatment Jolie gives it. Even at over two hours, everything about his remarkable story is abbreviated; his mischievous early life is barely touched upon, while no mention is made of the illness he was suffering before the Olympics, and we never see his handshake with Hitler, among other things.
But worst of all is the family-friendly treatment his life in the camps is given. Watanabe's treatment of Zamperini is indeed despicable, but Jolie never provides a real glimpse into how truly deplorable those places were, robbing his eventual rise (you caught the Christ imagery of him hoisting the beam in the poster, right?) of needed emotional weight.
With Roger Deakins as director of photography, a script by the Coen brothers (among others) and such great source material, there's no excuse for Unbroken's mediocrity, which makes it that much more aggravating.
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