Review: UNBROKEN Takes The Human Spirit To War, Prison

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Review: UNBROKEN Takes The Human Spirit To War, Prison
With Unbroken, Angelina Jolie has once again thwarted many expectations of her own career. She's stepped behind the camera to direct what is not just the most un-ironic "triumph of the human spirit" God/country/apple pie film in a long time, it might just be the strived-for template of most "Christian films". (Meaning, that small niche of small movies meant to inspire churchgoers and re-affirm their faith. These films have proven particularly profitable in past few years. The involvement of Kirk Cameron is not uncommon in such features.) 

Unbroken is a difficult but ultimately uplifting World War II tale of individual survival and prison camp adversity that would've been more at home in theaters eight decades ago. Indeed, its sappy approach to the harrowing true-life tale of Olympic track wonder turned wartime service man Louis Zamperini affirms all manner of traditional notions of inner strength. The kind of strength that's cultivated via family, and co-mingled with a strong tinge of God talk. Characters swear, but just enough to convince of their authenticity as servicemen. Other than that, they tend to speak in nicely written platitudes and/or exposition. That's just how these things work. 

The thing about Unbroken is that it hits all of the tropes that have become so synonymous with Christian/faith-based films in the past couple of decades. It hits them better than they do, in fact. And it does it as a mainstream Hollywood effort. It's the highly watchable highly engaging technically proficient movie that all of the Soul Surfers and whatnot wish so badly to be. And while I'd rather see the later-life story of the film's main character, where, according to a bit of closing text, he went around and forgave his captors, this is not a poor film in the conventional sense. It is, however, a weird anomaly. 

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As unlikely as such a film might be coming from one-time rebellious sexpot Jolie, it's all the more unlikely how well she pulls it off. Her pacing ain't bad, and her visuals, particularly the aerial stuff, are very good. The movie holds together well. That said, it's inescapable that without its stunning, vivid and arch cinematography by Roger Deakins and admirably high-end production value in other areas, Unbroken, for most people, would bear little difference from the average made-for-TV emotional string puller. 

More accurately, Unbroken displays the talent and resources to be the film that most contemporary "faith-based" films set out to be, in ways both good and bad. A quick survey of most any popular "Christian" film (Soul Surfer, Heaven is for Real) reveals a clear checklist of like qualities; Individual triumph over overwhelming circumstance, being based upon a true story, a heavy value placed upon family, camaraderie, country, and service. Ideally, such films are based upon a book. (Check. Unbroken is based upon the long-ago published story of Louis Zamperini"). 

That Unbroken does all of this while successfully avoiding arriving as part of the inherently unappealing Christian film ghetto elevates it. Its heart is in the right place, even if it's marketed as a gleaming Oscar contender replete with excellent performances of physical transformation by a largely unknown cast. Zamperini is played by noteworthy newcomer Jack O'Connell. Although Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleeson are all involved, Jolie is the most famous name involved. All we see of her are her directorial fingerprints on every frame. 

A personal aside: As both an avid church-goer AND a film buff, the movie marketing and constant reinforcing of what Christian triumph looks like these days is disturbing to me. While I'm always glad to have my beliefs reflected in a good movie, it gets dicey when those beliefs are so often skewed into one-dimensional feelgood uplift. There's actually not all that much God talk or praying in Unbroken. What I'm taking issue with is not how well the film tells a story of vaguely faith-based survival in the worst of conditions, but how such stories often can't help but play as grandstanding portrayals of eventual Christian triumph. Such us-defeating-them grandstanding defeats the kind of genuine love and compassion for the outcast and defeated that Christians ought to strive to share. Interestingly, that outreaching of love and compassion is just what the unseen second movie would be. But, as evidenced by its omission other than quick text, Hollywood knows that that don't sell. 

But here's the deal - Unbroken IS a "triumph of the human spirit" film, and not a bad one at that. (Don't feel bad for wanting to see it, and then liking it!) Furthermore, I don't think it's wrong to be inspired by Zamperini's story. But the film does bring to light, at least for me, just how much the financially successful Christian made and marketed films have copped that model from classic Hollywood. And now, we have contemporary Hollywood copping it back, with that tinge of Christian faith still intact. And only a few years ago we might've thought it unbelievable that this "unbelievable true story" would arrive courtesy of Angelina Jolie.
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Angelina JolieDomhnall Gleesonfilm reviewGarrett HedlundJack O'ConnellJai CourtneyJim TudorLouis ZamperiniWorld War II

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