I had hoped to eke 800 words out of a review of Angelina Jolie’s second feature as a director, “Unbroken,” if only for the potential headline, “Inglorious Alabaster: ‘White Elephant Art’ And ‘Unbroken.’” But that way lies invective. The great film-critic-painter Manny Farber crafted his spleen like the maker-with-his-hands that he was, carpentering his prose to something both brute and precise. He etched a distinction between two manners of moviemaking in his infamous essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” which, rudely simplified, elevated the neurotic likes of Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann above the studio pictures that postured toward two hours of transient nobility, or the perfume of prestige. Late fall and early winter have become the season of the sort of filmmaking that Farber described as possessing “the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity.” Which Angelina Jolie’s somber, hardly dramatized “Unbroken” is, kinda-sorta, an admittedly one-note-gorgeous, intimate epic of one man’s physical suffering during World War II. The source material, Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned-airman-turned-prisoner-turned-survivor, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” was adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen (“Raising Arizona”), William Nicholson (“Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom”) and Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”). Zamperini, played compactly and compellingly by Jack O’Connell (“Starred Up,” the British series “Skins”), suffers picturesquely, courtesy of the dynamic frames and brilliantly captured light of the great Roger Deakins’ quietly classical cinematography. “Unbroken” is sleek when in the elements, merely slick in haughtily burnished interiors. But to what end? Whether lost at sea, brutalized in a Japanese prisoner war camp, “Unbroken” is lovely wrapping for empty virtuousness (and virtuosity). “Unbroken” may be the most interminable display of male suffering in a wide-release film since the lavish homoerotic pummeling of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (To paraphrase, “take, beat, this is my body.”) The survivor, the noble sufferer, the masochist, perhaps even the victim: why has this figure become ennobled in our pop culture, and especially movies released in white elephant season? Jolie offers no answer, only a succession of Important moments in Decorative settings. With Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Garrett Hedlund. 137m. Widescreen. (Ray Pride)
“Unbroken” opens Christmas Day.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.