Tag Archives: Unbroken

Immortality in Empathy — “Unbroken”

Unbroken train

by Gabriel Valdez

Unbroken is a film of tremendous beauty and rare elegance. It’s based on the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympian who became a bombardier in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. His bomber crashed in the Pacific and, after being lost at sea for more than a month, he became a Japanese prisoner of war, subject to a warden who was later sought for war crimes due to his brutality.

None of these details are spoilers – they’re all part of an historical account. I’m not sure one could spoil director Angelina Jolie’s movie either. Its profound effect isn’t simply due to the facts of its story. In fact, Jolie overcomes a surprisingly unremarkable script written in part by the Coen brothers, auteurs from whom I usually expect more.

What Jolie finds as a director are the details that shape a moment, that take a cinematic scene and turn it into a peek inside someone else’s memory. We see the sweeping wind across Louis’s hometown, seeming to echo his sense of being a loner. We hear the rustle of the palms in the tropical Pacific wind as Louis runs a time trial before a mission. We watch the glitter of the stars as Louis tries to sleep after a month in a lifeboat at sea.

Unbroken prayer

Few of us lead epic lives, but we all have epic memories, the kind where we can still see and smell and even taste the moment. Jolie uses the astounding cinematography of Roger Deakins to evoke a sense of texture that is both artful and personal. Much in Unbroken is left unsaid – themes aren’t debated in dialogue so much as hinted at in passing details. You get a sense how influenced Jolie’s been by directors she’s worked with as an actress, particularly the wry, spare, and evocative style of Clint Eastwood, where the most important words are always left unspoken.

Many critics have taken Unbroken to task for not being grand enough or for focusing on the brutal, wartime aspects of Louis’s life. Jolie’s aim here is to communicate a message of forgiveness and, rather than show a pained veteran dramatically learning how to offer it to those who wronged him, she focuses on Louis’s time as a prisoner-of-war. She tallies the moments that are unforgivable in order to build up how insurmountable a task forgiveness can be. In showing us Louis’s will to overcome life-or-death moments, she displays how understanding and forgiving your enemies is a similarly noble act of inner strength.

Unbroken camp

That can’t be communicated by dialogue or by beautiful cinematography. It’s communicated through empathy, and in Jolie’s hands that means finding the precise visuals and storytelling moments that create a memory: the shadows that fill the room while a father disciplines a child and the mother holds another. The look that mother gives when she knows her son is watching her cook from scratch, the simple, private pride of a humble moment. A photograph of Louis’s captor as a young boy, with his own strict father and impossible expectations. The glitter of bombers and fighters on the Tokyo horizon, signaling a war that’s drawing to a close. Jolie is not a perfect filmmaker here. She’s something more important – a storyteller who communicates with a powerful empathy that I believe audiences are understanding more than critics. The packed house I watched with gave the film a standing ovation. How rare is that?

If the goal of this movie is to inspire, Unbroken does that in spades. I walked out feeling uplifted and more determined in my own goals than when I’d went in. If the goal of the movie is to make me contemplate the brutality of war and torture, and to better ennoble and idealize the values in forgiveness, it does that, too.

Unbroken doesn’t set out to overwhelm you the way so many big-budget war films do. It doesn’t seek to redefine what makes a film either, instead choosing a very classic approach to storytelling. The effect it has is quiet, philosophical, and spiritual, but it’s not without its compelling moments and tense sequences. This is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. There are cliché moments, but you’re allowed to be cliché when you do it this well. O’Connell’s is a fully inhabited performance. You don’t get the sense that he’s acting, so much as living and breathing the hours of another man.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Unbroken have more than one woman in it?

No. Louis has both a mother and sisters, and a few women cheer him on from the stands during his races, but blink and you’ll miss all but his mother. She’s the only woman of any consequence in the film.

Questions 2 (Do they talk to each other?) and 3 (About something other than a man?) are void without passing Question 1.

This presents an interesting situation: one of the few women greenlit to direct a big-budget film makes one that doesn’t feature any female characters. Since our viewpoint is restricted to Louis’s own and the film focuses on his time spent in the military and as a prisoner of war, I can understand the choice. There aren’t many scenes here that would logically or historically include women. That said, including more women in any film isn’t difficult.

There’s something more important here, though, and that is – as a male critic – am I qualified to dictate to a female director how to better tell stories including women? One of the things that needs to change in criticism is for critics ourselves to recognize and admit when we don’t know something or are not qualified to critique a certain aspect of a film. There’s a terrible fear that if we ever admit something like this on any front, we’ll lose the trust of our audience, as if that audience expects us to know everything all the time. That feeds into the notion that a critic’s opinion is somehow more valuable or important than that of the person next to you. It isn’t. It never will be. At best, a critic is someone who can foster conversation and new understandings about a film, not someone who will tell you how to think.

The Bechdel section we’ve included functions so well because more than 90% of the major films out there are directed by men. Close to half the films that are made don’t pass the Bechdel Test, even though its qualifications are incredibly simple to meet. The argument has never been that all films need to pass it, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to tell stories that don’t pass it. The argument is simply to apply pressure that encourages more films to pass it.

The Bechdel Test is a tool. It’s informational. It helps, but it doesn’t define. Unbroken tells a male story from what many would refer to as a female perspective – one of emotion and memory. There’s an argument to be made that its empathy isn’t something you’ll find in most films because most films are directed from what we think of as a male perspective – one of facts and story. The delineation between these two perspectives is culturally ingrained – men are just as capable of empathy, women are just as capable of logic. The storytelling culture we live in reinforces a false separation that trains us to believe that this isn’t true. Women are trained to value different aspects in a story than men are. While those boundaries are weakening in some parts of American culture, they are still very present and they are still very ingrained.

Criticism is a male-driven industry and, no matter how much any individual male critic might like to think he exists outside that cultural training, he really doesn’t. That includes me. Now, I value empathy in storytelling, and I’m willing to forget the traditional landmarks of plot in favor of an empathetic connection. Might that allow me to prioritize aspects of a story differently from other critics? Yeah, absolutely. (I think that’s why many critics bounce off Unbroken. The industry values a more academic perspective on film, which is not how audiences watch movies. Audiences value emotional reaction.) Every critic values some particular aspect of storytelling more than the next one, and every critic is going to be able to speak to you about that aspect with more nuance and consideration than the next.

Simply because I value what we’re inaccurately trained to think of as a female value in storytelling does not, however, make me suddenly qualified to tell a woman how to direct better for women. One is a matter of perspective. The other is a matter of reality. They ultimately have nothing to do with each other. I’m qualified to discuss the empathy in Unbroken because it’s not a perspective exclusive to women, and it’s an aspect in storytelling I deeply value. I am not qualified to tell a woman how to change or not change her storytelling when it comes to including women. That may be an aspect of storytelling I value, but as a male critic, I don’t believe I have the right to take possession of that argument.

Trailers of the Week — True Stories

Nov. 14

Steve Carell’s often hinted at some deeper pathos in his comedy. It’s what makes characters like Michael Scott on The Office compelling. His asinine comedian of a boss spoke to Scott’s lack of confidence, his social maladjustment. He tried to correct this through behaving, through women, through spending every cent he had, and found in every iteration, he found no real comfort.

It was only when he started to grow up and become comfortable with himself that others became comfortable around him, started rooting for him rather than against him. That Carell may deliver one of the better performances of the year in Foxcatcher isn’t a surprise. It’s that it took so long for someone to put him in a dramatic role like this, playing an historical character, that’s the real surprise.

(This isn’t really the first trailer. It’s about the 7 millionth, but it is the first “official” trailer.)

Out in select markets, expanding soon

Whiplash has been engineering one of those frustrating holiday releasing strategies. Is it in limited markets? In previews? Expanding? Yes, yes, and is molasses a releasing strategy? Technically, it’s already out, but it better start expanding far more if it wants to capitalize on the buzz that’s been going around about it. All I know is it looks brilliant. I know a very few folks who have seen it already and describe it as the defining role of J.K. Simmons’s exceptional career.

March 13

I’m not sold on Chris Hemsworth yet. He’s fun to watch as Thor, but his other projects really haven’t launched.

I should be sold on director Ron Howard by now, but I always have reservations going into his movies. With the exception of Apollo 13, his films that aren’t designed to be hits (The Missing, Frost/Nixon, Rush) tend to be better than the ones that are (Ransom, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code).

It’s ironic that Rush is one of Howard’s better films. Hemsworth was fine in it, but the role wasn’t exactly a stretch for him. He played it in very broad strokes and it never felt like he reached the level of his costars. Personally, I’d rather see his Rush-costar Daniel Bruhl in a role like this.

It also makes me wary that this isn’t a Moby Dick adaptation. It’s based on the “true events” that inspired Moby Dick. In fact, a youthful Herman Melville is one of the characters here, played by Ben Whishaw. That’s always dangerous territory. It’s also off-putting that the whale in the trailer is some flame breath or an EMP-burst away from being a Pacific Rim kaiju.

Actually, Ron Howard’s “Pacific Rim: Colonial Edition”…I’m beginning to get the Chris Hemsworth casting now.

Do I have a whole host of worries about In the Heart of the Sea? Absolutely. Does it look good anyway. Yep.

Dec. 26

This isn’t Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, but for the vast majority of viewers, it will be. That alone leaves me rooting for it. Since most women filmmakers don’t enjoy the ability to step into a fully-financed studio film, if she’s successful, she may change Hollywood’s minds on backing female directors.

All of that is immaterial to the film itself, however, and the film looks damn good. All its trailers have come across as a bit schmaltzy, but coming out in the holiday season, that’s how they’ve got to appeal. It doesn’t look like the film itself will subscribe to that. Instead, this looks like an old-fashioned, rousing, biographical picture. That’s exactly my cup of tea. It is based on a true story, and is probably going to stick to the facts of that story a little more closely than Ron Howard’s Whaleformers above.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for Unbroken for a lot of reasons.

No date set

Yakuza send-up gone mad, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? follows a gangster who wants his gang war revenge on film, starring his daughter, and done before his wife gets out of prison. Because why not?

Japan might have the best film industry in terms of skewering its own genre standards. That’s a fancy way of saying they make the best comedies. This doesn’t mean every one is a hit, but I’ve heard good things about Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and the trailer hints at a movie that knows precisely the overbloodied gangster movie tropes it wants to lampoon.

December 5

When you click on a trailer with Nicolas Cage’s name attached, you’re already thinking “Worst Trailer of the Week.” And Dying of the Light certainly starts out with that potential. As it develops, though, you start to see where it could go and it’s another Nicolas (Nicolas Winding Refn, in this case) that makes me view the trailer through another filter. The writer-director of Drive and Only God Forgives is producing, with hit-or-miss writer-director Paul Schrader, well, writing and directing this time out.

His last film was the execrable The Canyons, a movie so wretched I broke out the word ‘execrable’ to describe it. A Bret Easton Ellis performance art project starring Lindsay Lohan, porn star James Deen, and in which the movie itself was secondary, Schrader was the hapless director used in a Producers-like plot to create the perfect modern train wreck. Ellis’s success was contingent on Schrader’s failure, but that doesn’t mean Schrader should be forgiven his directorial decisions on The Canyons.

All this is a way of saying Dying of the Light is a high-risk, moderate-reward kind of venture. I have more confidence in Winding Refn to get something good out of Schrader than Ellis, and the trailer surprised me by looking like something I’d watch. Given the amount of crap I give Nicolas Cage (despite honestly liking him in many roles), it’s nice to highlight a performance of his with true potential.

Worst Trailer of the Week:

Haley Joel Osment! Jokes about this Internet thing! Crappy comedies about lazy-ass guys whose lazy-assitude is rewarded with beautiful women just because that’s the way the world works, right?

It’s like the early 2000s all over again.

He gets drunk and throws up on someone! I’ve never seen that before! Look, when even Steve Zahn moved past this stuff, it really should’ve signaled the end, guys. Please don’t make Haley Joel Osment our new Steve Zahn.

Here’s some Chris Hemsworth to wash the taste of whatever that was out. I might start pretending he’s really Thor stripped of his powers in every film. It already makes Red Dawn a much better film.

Chris Hemsworth In the Heart of the Sea

Indie Ruin to Epic Empire: The Films of 2014, #30-21

January is the time of year when studios dump films for which they have no other place and try to get audiences to the Oscar nominees instead. Pretty soon we’ll see the ramp up for this year’s best films. With apologies to Guardians of the Galaxy, because I really can’t get that excited to see a tree and a raccoon save the universe when Marvel still doesn’t think a woman’s capable of doing it, these are the thirty movies I’m most excited to see this year:

A Fantastic Fear of Everything

30. A Fantastic Fear of Everything

February 7 — Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), mostly in his underwear, stars as a children’s author who is afraid of, well, everything, especially his laundromat. He is tormented by a stuffed hedgehog from his own books. If that doesn’t get you interested in finding out what happens next, I don’t know what would. Watch the trailer here.

The Voices

29. The Voices

No date set — I remember my first Ryan Reynolds experience, the very questionable Blade: Trinity, in which he out-Parker Posey-ed Parker Posey herself. Since then, he’s made some bad career moves, so I’m excited he’s getting back to the indie circuit. Here, Reynolds plays a far too happy-go-lucky factory worker, as well as voicing the cat who keeps insisting he give into his urge to murder people, and the dog who insists that’s not such a good idea. Also starring Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick. Directed by Marjane Satrapi, director of the artful, animated memoir Persepolisnaturally.

Publicity stills photography on the set of NBC Universal's movie 'Unbroken'

28. Unbroken

December 25 — Angelina Jolie directs a screenplay by the Coen brothers about Olympian Louis Zamperini, who fought in World War 2 and was taken captive by Japanese forces. Jolie is relatively untested as a director, but she’s smartly and decisively managed her own career and has proven a desire to tell challenging stories.

The Lunchbox

27. The Lunchbox

February 28 — An Indian comedy about an older man and a young housewife who become accidental penpals through Mumbai’s lunchbox delivery system. It stars Irrfan Khan, whose central role in Life of Pi introduced Western audiences to an actor with the rare ability to communicate through the unspoken, quiet spaces between the dialogue. Watch the trailer here.

300 Rise of an Empire

26. 300: Rise of an Empire

March 7 — The sequel nobody asked for looks much better than it has any right to be. Early trailers make it look like the naval battle of Salamis carries much of the synaesthetic sumptuousness of the first 300. While I expect about as much historical accuracy as my foot, Noam Murro is an incredibly intriguing choice at director, and those trailers also pose the battle as a clash led by queens. Lena Headey returns, and Eva Green looks to be chewing every piece of scenery she can lay her hands on. After the brawny manliness of the first 300, it will be nice to see women just as capable at leading their troops into battle. Watch the trailer here.

X Men Days

25. X-Men: Days of Future Past

May 23 — Bryan Singer fuses his modern and Matthew Vaughn’s First Class X-Men franchises together through the magic of time travel. Starring everybody who’s ever been in an X-Men movie, including Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as the same character, Jennifer Lawrence and Ellen Page as much bigger deals than in their previous entries in the franchise, and throwing Game of Throne’s Peter Dinklage into the mix because…why wouldn’t you? Watch the trailer here.

Under the Skin

24. Under the Skin

April 4 — The director responsible for the uneven Sexy Beast and Birth delivers a movie starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress picking up hitchhikers in Scotland. Wait, what? The trailer looks downright Lynchian, and my favorite David Lynch movies are always the ones he has nothing to do with. Watch the trailer here.

Blue Ruin

23. Blue Ruin

April 25 — A prisoner is released from jail. The homeless man whose life he ruined sets out for revenge. Things quickly devolve into a contest to see which man can hurt the other more. Watch the trailer here.

Jupiter Ascending

22. Jupiter Ascending

July 18 — In the latest Wachowski beat-em-up, the Queen of the Universe targets a lowly Earth girl named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) for assassination. Why? So we can have an action movie. Well, it’s because Mila Kunis has perfect DNA. So, at least it’s scientifically accurate sci-fi. Her DNA threatens the Queen, so the Queen sends her best assassin (Channing Tatum) for Jupiter’s head and he switches sides. So it’s Snow White and the Huntsman, but in space, and by the Wachowskis, so inevitably better. I’m always in the mood for a swashbuckling planetary romance. Certain parts of the trailer feel clunky and cliché and Tatum and Kunis haven’t proven they can carry this big a film, but the Wachowskis have rarely faltered. Success or failure, it will definitely be event cinema. Watch the trailer here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

21. The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 7 — Wes Anderson continues his campaign to film quirky, period characters exclusively at 90-degree angles, this time in a murder mystery set across the precious, snowy climes of Eastern Europe. I loved making dioramas as a kid, so I’m all in. Watch the trailer here.