Angelina Jolie‘s “Unbroken” became the last major awards contender to be unveiled on Sunday afternoon, with the director on hand to talk about her film depicting the heroic survival of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, who endured weeks adrift in the Pacific Ocean and years in a brutal Japanese prison camp.
She showed the film to an audience of awards season voters, press and two of Zamperini’s children at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, drawing an ovation but also prompting an air of caution from those who’d labeled it an Oscar frontrunner sight-unseen. (The film had already screened in Australia, where it premiered, and Berlin, where Jolie went with stars Jack O’Connell and Miyavi, above.)
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The early verdict from this corner is that the film is impressive and immersive, but also grim and grueling — an awards contender to be sure, but also a tough piece of work that doesn’t necessarily provide the kind of experience that voters often embrace.
For Jolie, though, the most crucial audience may have come earlier, when she brought her laptop to the hospital to show an early cut to Zamperini before his death in July at the age of 97.
“You realize you’re not going in to get a review from somebody,” she said of the hospital-room screening. “You’re watching somebody at a certain point in their life — toward the end of their life — watching their whole life. And you’re sitting there as they do it.”
The vast majority of the film takes place during World War II, when Zamperini’s bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and he and two other survivors spent 45 days adrift at sea before they were “rescued” by a Japanese boat and sent to a series of prison camps.
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The film flashes back to Zamperini’s childhood and to his career as a high school, college and Olympic runner, but it starts during the war and plunges the audience into a horrifying ordeal in which the only words Zamperini can cling to are “if you can take it, you can make it.”
The triumph in his story is from a distance; up close and onscreen, it’s a grim and graphic tale of survival in the most hellish of circumstances. The audience was largely appreciative and admiring, though, at the way in which Jolie, in her second film as a director, handled both the moments of large-scale drama and the long stretches of quiet suffering.
Producer Matthew Baer, on hand for the post-screening Q&A along with cinematographer Roger Deakins and cast members O’Connell and Miyavi, said he acquired the rights shortly after seeing a documentary about Zamperini in 1998. But while several drafts of a screenplay were written and the project was taken to Universal, Baer said the studio didn’t become really interested until “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand published her bestselling book, from which the film takes its title, in 2010.
Jolie said she was enthralled by Hillenbrand’s book, and by Zamperini’s story. “As I read the book I became inspired, I felt better about life … and I wanted to better understand this man, and to have the honor of walking in his footsteps.”
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She also said that after reading the book, she wanted to “shout [Zamperini’s story] from the rooftops — and it turned out that if I went on my rooftop, I actually see Louis, because we’re neighbors.”
She didn’t know this at the time, she added. It was only when she asked for a meeting with Zamperini and said that she didn’t know where he lived, that she was told, “He knows where you live, because his wife used to look for Brad with binoculars.”
(But while hubby Brad Pitt was a lure for Mrs. Zamperini, he also learned his place: “Brad knew that if there was one man in the world he couldn’t get in front of,” said Jolie, “it was Louis.”)
As for the actors, O’Connell said he was on an 800-calorie-a-day diet to play the emaciated, prison-camp Zamperini, though he preferred not to pay attention to how many pounds he lost. And in fact, he added, some of the weight loss was computer-generated: Because he had to shoot scenes as an Olympic athlete only nine days after shooting the prison camp scenes, he had to lose weight he could put back on quickly, and not lose muscle mass.
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As his chief foe in the film, Japanese musician Miyavi makes a striking film debut playing the sadistic prison camp commander Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird” by the prisoners.
Miyavi said he was reluctant to take on a part that reflected poorly on the country where he was born and raised, from a controversial book that had never even been translated into Japanese.
And when it came time to film one particularly brutal scene late in the film, he said, he cried and threw up because he didn’t think he was up to the task. Jolie, he said, coaxed him back by saying, “Just be yourself, just take your time, just accept yourself.
“So I was able to accept myself, and I went back to the set…and I threw up again.”