LAS VEGAS – Every year the major studios present their upcoming slate to the nation's theater owners at CinemaCon (formerly ShoWest). It's commonplace for a studio head to bring out a few famous faces to drive home the point that they should get behind a particular movie or two. Tuesday morning, Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures, had only one movie star waiting in the wings and it was a big one: Angelina Jolie.
Langley's job was to pitch Universal's entire 2014 slate and tease 2015 by showcasing upcoming films such as “Fast and Furious 7,” “The Minions,” “Neighbors” and “Jurassic World.” Jolie had only one job: convince theater owners that her new drama “Unbroken,” which she directed, was worthy of their screens and in-theater promotional energy over the next nine months.
The true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who found himself captured by the Japanese during World War II, “Unbroken” only has star power behind the camera. Jack O'Connell, who plays Zamperini, may make a name for himself because of this performance, but certainly not beforehand. Supporting players Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleeson are well known, but hardly household names who help open movies. If “Unbroken” is going to be a hit it will because of critical acclaim and word of mouth.
Much of that can come from playing the awards season/Oscar game. Something you'd expect with a movie of this caliber releasing on Dec. 25. Before introducing Jolie, Langley herself pretty much pegged it as it an awards player, specifically noting that the cinematographer was Roger Deakins and that Alexandre Desplat (“who scored 'Argo' and 'The King's Speech,'” she made sure to point out) was on board as the composer. (That she didn't mention Oscar-winning screenwriters Ethan and Joel Coen and prior nominees Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson was somewhat of a surprise.)
Before showing an intriguing four-to-five minute preview, Jolie beamed as she described the movie as “the journey of man from the darkness into the light.” And the footage itself? Well, even moreso than the Comcast/NBC Sochi Olympics teaser released last month, it's clear Jolie has fashioned a film the can easily be turned into a tearjerker trailer (and that's a compliment). There is a reason Zamperini's story was first optioned as a movie back in 1956. It spans multiple continents, bouncing from America to Germany to Japan. Zamperini went from a poor immigrant to a 19-year-old Olympian (incredibly young at the time) to being drafted into the Army to surviving a plane crash in the Pacific to finding himself beaten in a Japanese P.O.W. camp before and after refusing to become a publicity pawn for the Japanese government. It's a deep, rich story of survival and why the title of “Unbroken” isn't an exaggeration to describe Zamperini's life.
Jolie has collaborated with Deakins to create a broad, epic and gorgeous canvas. The production and costume design looks superb. There is a true grit to the prisoners of war camp. O'Connell, who has received kudos for his work on “Skins” and the British Indie “Starred Up,” appears as though he's delivered a fine performance. Granted, the period aspect and look of much of the film did remind me a bit of Steven Spielberg's “War Horse” (not necessarily a bad thing as it was a Best Picture nominee). But is this a great movie or just a really well-made biopic? Depending on when and where the film actually premieres we may have to wait over half a year to find out.
The unfortunate aspect to all of this, of course, is that Jolie officially has the awards season target on “Unbroken's” back for most of 2014. And, considering the movie isn't even in theaters until Dec. 25, that's not a position you'd wish on anyone. Especially a filmmaker who's already shown as much talent as she has.
“Unbroken” opens nationwide on Christmas Day.