From ‘Tomb Raider’ To ‘Unbroken’: Angelina Turns The Gaze Back On Men

The Australia-shot war drama is gift to its subject, but just a movie to the rest of us.

Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort, Unbroken, arrives under a thick shroud of laudatory hype, mostly focused on the qualities of its true-life subject.

Filmed in Australia (if you’re a skinny Caucasian Junkee reader you may even be in it), the movie presents the very eventful story of American Louis Zamperini: Olympic athlete, World War 2 aviator, abused POW, and born-again advocate for forgiveness.

Jolie’s first film—a romantic drama set during the Bosnian war, regrettably titled In the Land Of Blood And Honey—was indifferently received and barely distributed. But Unbroken has impeccable technical and artistic credentials (including a script co-written by the Coen brothers), the support of a major studio, and a genuine American hero at its centre. The press narrative around the film has heralded greatness since probably before the cameras even started rolling – a regrettable state of affairs that may have contributed to its current mixed critical reception.

Press coverage like that which is usually afforded to Jolie’s every move can sometimes obscure real quality. The good news is that film is neither a major artistic success nor a vain Hollywood boondoggle. Handsomely mounted, well acted, and genuinely crowd pleasing: Unbroken is basically okay. If you have a dad, this film has your 2015 Christmas gift to him all sorted.

From Hackers To The United Nations

If someone had told you back around the release of Tomb Raider in 2001 that its allegedly blood-vial wearing, frequent Most Beautiful Woman in the World candidate star would one day direct a religiously inspired film about a WW2 hero, screen it at the Vatican, and have a private audience with the Pope, you may have been quietly skeptical.

In fact, Jolie has carved a long path to her present eminence. It’s pretty easy to forget that her superstardom was preceded by a modest rise through the doldrums of early-nineties cinema. It wasn’t until she won an Oscar for her role in Girl Interrupted in 1999 that she really broke through. The movie career that followed was, in retrospect, pretty artistically negligible (unless you ride for Original Sin or Shark Tale), and entirely out of proportion with her level of fame. Nevertheless, as the rare, money-minting action female lead, Jolie is a trailblazer actress in some ways (and her last starring role, in Disney’s Maleficent, was her most profitable to date).

The real foundation for her current regard seems to rest on her humanitarian work. In her position as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Jolie has engaged with displaced persons around the world, building schools and villages, campaigning against sexual violence, and generally just gallivanted around making everyone else look lazy and shiftless. Her recent foray into directing seems like a natural move toward ensuring that the authority she holds in her real-world work is an integral part of her film career as well.

On the evidence of Unbroken, Jolie doesn’t demonstrate much artistic purpose or flair as a director; she mostly just seems dedicated to getting Zamperini’s story on screen as unfussily as possible, while still working it for maximum emotional effect. Her work here is almost resolutely old-fashioned. The film is beautiful to look at—thanks to the work of genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, frequent collaborator to the Coens—but the compositions favour maximum visual clarity over aesthetic fussiness, and the editing is patient and deliberate.


The Passion Of The POW

The most interesting thing, given Jolie’s history as something of a sex symbol, is that Unbroken functions in large part as a detailed visual study of the human male. The tendency of cinema—especially Hollywood-derived films—to situate the female body as the object of attention and the male body at the locus of the spectator is pretty well understood, so there’s something refreshing about watching an almost-exclusively male cast at the hands of a female director. Unbroken is hardly self-conscious about this dynamic, but there’s something of a frisson there nonetheless.

If Unbroken is about anything it’s about the male body under duress. Whether pounding round the track at the Berlin Olympics or stripped bare before his captors, Zamperini’s body is continually put on display by Jolie (along with those of the men surrounding him), and almost exclusively in situations of physical extremity. It’s here that Unbroken’s visual clarity comes in handy.

Zamperini’s various traumas unfold in a kind of heightened, cinematic version of real time – which is another way of saying that everything happens about 30 percent slower that it would in, like, a Michael Bay film. Jolie’s visual diligence makes for some unexpectedly tense combat scenes, particularly in the early aerial dogfights, where she really hammers home the uncanniness of being in a floating metal tube in the sky while getting shot at. It also ensures that Zamperini’s physical suffering is played out in near-agonising detail.

Some moments in the film have a definite Passion of the Christ vibe. Near the climax of the film, a badly injured and malnourished Zamperini is forced by his captors to hold a huge log aloft for hours on end. The Christ allusion is heavy-handed, but the image also helpfully caps Jolie’s visual schema for the entire film.

Jolie and the real Zamperini.

Jolie and the real Zamperini.

Jack O’Connell Is The Business

All this Stations of the Zamperini business is helped along by the presence in the lead role of British actor Jack O’Connell, who gives a hugely disciplined performance that’s only slightly undermined by the fact that the script doesn’t offer him much of a character to play. Zamperini’s continual resilience under extreme situations may be an inspiring accomplishment for a real-life person, but it ultimately doesn’t offer much of a dramatic arc.

O’Connell’s key dialogue is mostly restricted to repeating the mantra Zamperini’s brother offers him early in the film—“if you can take it you can make it”—and every so often offering some prayers to God. This is mostly okay, though, because O’Connell is an absolute physical dynamo, and whether sprinting, starving, or taking a beating, he always seems to fully inhabit his character’s trials.

The actor was last seen in 2013’s Starred Up, as a violent young offender ‘starred up’ into an adult prison, where he serves time alongside his estranged father, played by Ben Mendelsohn (the film is now available on home video in Australia). He gave a similarly impeccable physical performance there, giving his character’s intense rage and violence an almost animalistic power. In March he’ll appear in the Irish troubles thriller ’71, about a lost British soldier trying to a survive a night on the streets of Belfast.

The real Louis Zamperini passed away in July last year, and in some respects the film plays as an extended hagiography. The film’s adoration for its hero and respect for his story has been a consistent theme throughout the lead up to its release, and Jolie, who seems full of affection for her subject, has rarely missed a chance to sing his praises publically – which, if you think about it, is basically a nice thing to do.

As a portrait of a man, Unbroken seems like a genuine act of kindness. For the rest of us, it’s just a pretty okay film.

Unbroken opened in Australian cinemas today.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas