“For her second film as a director,” begins the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver, “Angelina Jolie has elected to go down the old-school Hollywood route: an inspirational war picture about athlete-turned-soldier Louis Zamperini, who survived weeks adrift in an open boat after his plane was shot down over the Pacific during the second world war, then endured a horrific period in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Though high-minded and well-intentioned—as well as being conceived on an epic scale—there’s something faintly stodgy and safety-first about the endeavor.”
“Jolie has achieved something by turns eminently respectable and respectful to a fault, maintaining an intimate, character-driven focus that, despite the skill of the filmmaking and another superb lead performance from Jack O’Connell, never fully roars to dramatic life,” agrees Variety‘s Justin Chang.
“The book of the same name, by Laura Hillenbrand, was never not going to be adapted,” the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey assures us. “The author wrote Seabiscuit, which became one of 2003’s Best Picture contenders, and her research into Zamperini’s legitimately remarkable life story looks tailor-made for a saga of American pluck and survival. What’s puzzling, though, is how a big-hitting quartet of screenwriters, including Gladiator’s William Nicholson, Behind the Candelabra’s Richard LaGravenese, and even the Coen brothers, have wrestled with the material and collectively produced a take on it this limp.”
“Just recently recognized outside the U.K. due to his work in Starred Up and 300: Rise of An Empire, O’Connell is a pleasure to watch at all times here,” finds the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “He has energy, seems watchful and resourceful by instinct, is open to others and, crucially, seems like a man who, even when he doesn’t necessarily win, will nonetheless prevail…. The substantial aviation material looks quite real, no matter how effects-generated it may be, and Roger Deakins’s cinematography has a rugged elegance that, combined with the general play of light and dark, gives the film a richly satisfying palette.”
Jolie’s “2011 debut In the Land of Blood and Honey was an effectively downbeat chronicle of forbidden love at a Serbian prison camp in which, like the conflict itself, nobody emerged truly victorious,” notes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Another commanding tale of perseverance against seemingly insurmountable odds, [Unbroken] finds Jolie flexing more sentimental muscles, resulting in a classical feel-good wartime excursion. That’s just enough to make the movie work in the confines of its formula while laying its limitations bare.”
Still, Screen‘s John Hazelton finds it “perhaps a bit too reverential for its own dramatic good.”
Update, 12/9: The Credits‘ Bryan Adams interviews editor Billy Goldenberg.
Updates, 12/25: “Among Angelina Jolie’s unmistakable attributes is her empathy—her ardent drive to understand the experience of the other.” R. Kurt Osenlund for Slant: “Unbroken has all the ingredients of a chest-puffing piece on Yankee military superiority, with paranoid fingers pointed at the exotic, one-dimensional opponent. But Argo or Lone Survivor this is not. As opposed to painting its non-U.S. characters as subhuman ‘enemies,’ Unbroken treads very carefully with the concept, even putting the first utterance of the word into the mouth of a priest, who, in Louie’s flashback to childhood mass, recites, ‘love thine enemy.’ It’s a slightly trite bit of viewer hand-holding, as are most of the recollections that punctuate Louie’s harrowing wartime horrors, but it sets the tone for a film less interested in blame than in illuminating commonalities.”
“By the time Unbroken limps towards the finish line, director Angelina Jolie has convincingly made the case that a dozen great movies could be made about the extraordinary life of Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini,” writes David Ehrlich at Little White Lies. “The folly of this bland and broadly forgettable version is that it tries to be all of them.”
“There’s a dissertation to be written on Unbroken’s campy fascination with supple male flesh and its mortification,” suggests Keith Uhlich at the AV Club. Zamperini’s “master-servant rapport with ‘The Bird,’ who belittles him with insults and beats him with a bamboo stick, is especially strange, coming off like a sanitized, PG-13 riff on Liliana Cavani’s infamous ode to wartime BDSM The Night Porter. Moral and spiritual triumph lie at the end of this hellish gauntlet, but though Jolie is shooting for Christ-like passion and redemption, she only ends up slathering one man’s very real, very morbid struggles in the usual reductive ‘greatest generation’ sentiment.”
More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 2/5), Nathan Bartlebaugh (Film Stage, B-), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 2.5/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 2/5), Lenika Cruz (Atlantic), Jonathan Kiefer (SF Weekly), Amy Nicholson (Voice), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Tasha Robinson (Dissolve, 2.5/5), Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com, 2.5/4) and Alison Willmore (Buzzfeed). And Steven Mears talks with Roger Deakins for Film Comment.
Updates, 12/27: Jolie “played the mother in Changeling, [Clint] Eastwood’s chilled, grim missing-child melodrama from 2008,” notes Wesley Morris at Grantland, where he adds that she “appears to have absorbed the front-facing resolve shared by many of Eastwood’s period movies. It’s big and long and kind of puffed up and paved with craftsmanship, sentimentality, and generic notions of fortitude and perseverance. It’s the best picture of 1948.”
Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper: “The end credits reveal that after the war, Zamperini returned to Japan and made peace with his torturers (or all but one): It’s a bad sign when the text over a movie’s closing credits suggests a story far more fascinating than the one it’s just finished telling.”
Update, 12/30: The Observer‘s Mark Kermode: “For all its solid production values, Unbroken remains hobbled by old-fashioned war-movie cliches; although Zamperini sought postwar reconciliation with his captors, Jolie’s movie is only interested in the gruelling POW endurances that were arguably the least interesting part of this inspirational life story.”
Update, 1/10: “Unbroken feels divided too neatly into chapters, with Alexandre Desplat’s score underlining each emotion,” writes Steven Mears for Film Comment. “And for exhibiting more interest in on-screen torture than anything since The Passion of the Christ (and with more crucifixion imagery), Jolie’s film is surprisingly bloodless and remote.”