Thursday, December 25, 2014

JOLIE’S POLISHED HEAVY HAND BREAKS ‘UNBROKEN’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Jack O'Connell meets his tormenter in "Unbroken."
What movies do well, and do quite frequently, are tales of fortitude – the survival of one remarkable individual against nigh impossible odds.  Done well it has us internally screaming for the protagonist  to persevere and even praying for some sort of revenge against his enemies while knowing that  in the real world there is at best only psychological vindication.

 “Unbroken” has all that going for it if only director Angelina Jolie would stop punching up the tortured lessons.

She was inspired by the astonishing first half of Louie Zamperini’s life -- from juvenile delinquent  to Olympic track star to survivor of 45 days afloat on a life raft to prisoner of war under the sadistic mind-games and face punches of a frustrated Japanese officer.

That’s what Jolie conceived as the commercial spine, something of her judgment on the nature of the movie audience.  What is not explored  is Zamperini’s plunge into postwar despair and drinking, followed by evangelical rededication to faith and forgiveness.  Perhaps that would have been more artistically challenging and certainly less prone to  wartime scene contrivances.  

Jolie has a slick professional understanding of where the obvious audience grabbers are.  That holds us in the first half, especially since she has surrounded herself with world class talent -- the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, helping on the screenplay, a top cinematographer and two accomplished film editors among a battery of experts.  On her own she adds an expert tracking eye to give   an epic feel to the 1936 Olympics in Germany and  a visceral pounding to air fights,  leading to the unending agony of being adrift in the Pacific. 

There are gifts here, but Jolie can’t resist over-tightening the screws, even lingering over beatings and starvations during interment.  The best of these films don’t pretend there is about to be a Sylvester Stallone moment of breakout revenge against state  villainy.  They fashion interior hope without operatic flourishes

The actual events are horrifying enough without this gussying. Inevitably our mind wanders to inspecting the gimmicks, such as how much makeup and organized tableaus have been employed on the robotic POWs. Were platitudes and snappy remarks really how GIs always talked? Did Japanese sadists take lessons from Hammer horror films? 

Hero-making lies behind the mounting scenes of nearly superhuman strength and defiance. It’s so pointed with lingering close-ups that the real purpose  seems to be converting Jack O’Connell into a matinee idol rather than exploring the heart of Louie’s stamina.

Still, it’s too easy to beat up on  Jolie as an overrated tabloid curiosity (her affairs, her adoptions, and her charity work) or to suggest she is tramping an overfamiliar landscape.   But the genre is not the problem, no more than if someone made a film about the life of Malala and  it was shot down by critics because Helen Keller was also brave and  proved that first. 

No, the dilemma here is execution, how to control the heavy weaponry a big name in cinema commands. With such power comes a need to raise the standards.

But Jolie is not the only Hollywood big shot dismissed by critics before going on to better things. There are meaningful parables in comparing her and Clint Eastwood, who is actually a competitor in awards shows with his “American Sniper” that won’t be seen in Milwaukee until January. Eastwood is still hit and miss and a clear embarrassment when his ego gets ahead of his technical abilities as happened at the 2012 Republican convention. 

For decades Clint had a box office aura of machismo far more than any artistic aura, even as he directed his own films. No one took him seriously until 1992’s “Unforgiven” -- interesting similarity of titles – and since then, along with failures, he has been drawn to stories that combine his sense of justice with a moral ambiguity of how curiously life works.  He brings a compressed focus, a relaxed trust that actors respond to, an authoritative professionalism from “Million Dollar Baby” to “Mystic River.”  Private ideology takes a backseat to verity of characters and subduing the message within the actual behavior.

Jolie should have learned that on “Changeling,” a 2008 film directed by Eastwood.  Probably she was first chosen since she looked the fashion ideal of a 1920s mother, and it’s not a perfect film, but the brutality of the LA police state was more convincing in letting our desire for justice excuse the pyrotechnics. If there was wish fulfillment in how she handled the opposition, it seemed more natural moment to moment. That is the sort of balance “Unbroken” couldn’t find.

Without pretending to be more than a professional moviemaker, Eastwood has learned how to make a story seem to tell itself.   Not yet Jolie. 

ANOTHER RECENT REVIEW: "Into the Woods."

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews at urbanmilwaukee.com.