Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken became the last of 2014’s high-profile awards hopefuls to screen for awards pundits when Universal unveiled it through simultaneous screenings on both coasts Sunday — and, despite mixed advance buzz and competition that includes plenty of other extremely dark films structured around strong male performances, I suspect that it will be a key player throughout the remainder of the race to the Oscars.
Jolie’s film about the Italian-American Olympic-athlete-turned-World-War-II-POW Louis Zamperini, who died earlier this year at 97, is only the second narrative feature ever directed by the 39-year-old (following her politely but not enthusiastically received 2011 Bosnian War drama In the Land of Blood and Honey). Jolie was a fan of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the 2010 biography of Zamperini penned by Laura Hillenbrand (who had also written the book upon which best picture Oscar nominee Seabiscuit was based), and subsequently learned that Zamperini was her neighbor. Shortly thereafter, as Jolie described during a post-screening Q&A in Los Angeles, the two met and bonded, and she fought to tell his story.
In some respects, the Zamperini story would be hard to screw up. The man experienced more drama in one decade than most auditoriums full of people will ever collectively experience in their lifetimes. But, for that same reason, expectations for the film were incredibly high from the get-go, and doubters about Jolie’s fitness for the job were not hard to find. Wisely, she surrounded herself with top-caliber people: The Oscar-winning brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen adapted Hillenbrand’s book into a script; their longtime cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, joined the project; and Jack O’Connell, a twentysomething British actor who has displayed great promise in a few other very small films, was cast as the man himself. All of the above pulled their weight and will be strong contenders in their respective Oscar categories.
The major concern with the Zamperini story for many was its length. The book is packed with harrowing details of his experiences — both glorious and torturous — and it was clearly going to be a daunting task to do justice to all that he went through in a film of conventional length. Early reports, in fact, suggested that Jolie and no less a film editor than twice-Oscar-nominated Tim Squyres (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi) were finding the task impossible, resulting in an oppressively long film, which is why Oscar winner William Goldenberg (Argo) was brought on late in the game to re-cut it. Only the two editors, Jolie and perhaps Universal know what really happened. But the fact of the matter is that the finished, 137-minute film is not especially long, is completely coherent and doesn’t seem to have any glaring omissions.
At the end of the day, the real make-or-break issue for Unbroken will probably be its depiction of brutality — which, by all accounts, is accurate, but will nevertheless prove tough for many people inside and outside of the Academy to watch. Some of its scenes — especially those featuring the androgynous-looking Japanese rock-star-turned-actor Miyavi — are truly gut-wrenching. Just last year, The Railway Man, another film based on a true story of a POW tortured in Japan during WWII, encountered similar issues en route to a total Oscar wipeout, and many Academy members admitted to me that they couldn’t bring themselves to watch 12 Years a Slave — although some still ended up voting for it because they felt it was of social importance, and the film wound up winning best picture.
Moreover, the film will reopen a lot of old wounds and restart a lot of old debates. As Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty recently pointed out to me, Germans today are, by and large, quick to acknowledge and apologize for their countrymen’s misdeeds during WWII, but the Japanese, hailing from a different culture, have generally preferred to bury the past and avoid discussing it. (The book was never translated into Japanese — even those who advised Hillenbrand on the book insisted upon remaining anonymous all these years later.) How will they react? Will Universal screen a different cut of the film in Japan? A studio rep tells me to expect an answer to that question Monday.
The bottom line, for the purposes of Oscar watchers, is that Unbroken is a real contender and will get a major push from Universal — and from Jolie, who next heads to New York for a series of promotional events this week. It may or may not have the right stuff to grab the best picture Oscar away from Boyhood or The Imitation Game or Selma, three pics that seem to have both the gravitas and passionate support necessary to go all the way. But it is certainly a serious contender for nominations for best picture and best director — Jolie and Selma‘s Ava DuVernay could make this the first year ever to produce two female nominees in that category. In addition, it might figure in the categories of best actor (O’Connell could ride the film’s coattails past bigger names from lesser films), best adapted screenplay (a category won by the Coens seven years ago for No Country for Old Men), best cinematography (Deakins is a perennial nominee and, unjustly, a perennial bridesmaid), best original score (the great Alexandre Desplat, who’s also up for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel), best production design, best sound editing, best sound mixing and maybe even best film editing (I’m sure that one would be extra sweet) and best makeup and hairstyling. I’m not sold on a best supporting actor nom for Miyavi, but it’s worth remembering that Sessue Hayakawa landed a nom for a similarly twisted performance in 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai — though, unlike Miyavi, he was a Hollywood veteran.
It’s too bad Zamperini — who I had the honor of seeing in-person at the 2013 Academy Governors Awards — won’t be around to see it.