‘Selma’ & Louie Z: Awards Season’s Historical Heavyweights

UNBROKEN Some films are great.

Some films are Important.

Some are both, some are neither. Many are one, attempting to be the other.

This time of year always unleashes at least one major release about a historical event we’re all familiar with, usually a true story, often centered around a major war or some other national or global watershed moment. Is it something about the onset of winter that makes us want to watch such stories?

No. It’s the Oscars.

These films are poised for Academy Award nominations, so they’re almost always released in the fall, often around Christmas Day. If they don’t win Best Picture, they’re at least trying to. They can be biopics or war films, literary adaptations or historical dramas. Maybe two or three or all of these. They smack of prestige. Often, they’re not quite as good as the marketing would have us believe. But sometimes they are.

As a war film/biopic/historical drama/bestselling literary adaptation, Unbroken was touted early on as the Film To Beat in the Oscar race of 2014, but that kind of early buzz can work against a prestige drama, as may be the case here. Based on a hit book that tells an incredible true story, co-written by the Coen brothers, and directed by Angelina Jolie, of all people, it is the tale of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who overcame some seriously harrowing obstacles during World War II. Louie is the child of Italian-American immigrants, a young troublemaker who is bullied for his outsider status and channels that angry energy into running track, which eventually takes him to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, where he is treated to an impassioned speech by Adolf Hitler. Louie doesn’t know it yet, but this man has set into motion events that will cause him serious harm and endanger his life numerous times, in numerous way, threatening to break him all the while.unbroken-jack-oconnell-luke-treadaway-miyaviBut — spoiler alert — they don’t.

Unbroken has the sheen of a typical awardsy prestige drama. Jolie’s direction is assured enough, in that this falls right in line with other handsomely produced wartime dramas that favor lush visuals over grit and bloodshed. Louie Zamperini faced unimaginable horrors, including 47 days with scarce food and water in a life raft with two fellow soldiers and a school of hungry sharks circling around them. And that might have been the most pleasant part of his story. He also had a stint in a POW camp where a particularly surly Japanese officer had it out for him. The actual experience of these events is obviously, inevitably more hellacious than any movie about them could depict, and Unbroken doesn’t even get close to putting us in that unspeakable situation. But did anyone expect an adaptation from the author of Seabiscuit directed by Malificent to “go there”? I didn’t.

So Unbroken is more War Horse than Saving Private Ryan, but that’s not inherently problematic. For what it is, Unbroken is an engaging drama, far from the best of the year but by no means the worst. It tells its story straightforwardly, without moral complications or a whole lot of character depth, but it is a hell of a story. We are meant to see Louie Zamperini as an American hero, a stalwart guy with a will made of iron. He never falters, and we never expect him to. Stories like this are comfort food — they go down easy and fill our bellies with warmth, like a big heaping helping of all-American apple pie. Jolie is no Kathryn Bigelow, but she knows how to make a movie.garrett-hedlund-jack-oconnell-unbrokenUnbroken is most notable for its lead performance by Jack O’Connell, a rising star if there ever was one. (In case you haven’t heard, he’s the new Tom Hardy.) Thanks to O’Connell, this Zamperini is exceedingly good-looking, but so is everyone else in the movie. As Unbroken tells it, World War II was fought and won exclusively by supermodels, and perhaps someone needed to tell its director: “Hey, Angie — hate to break it to you, but not everyone is beautiful.” The supporting cast features Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Witrock, Domnhall Gleeson, and assorted other lesser-known gorgeous people, which occasionally make Unbroken feel more like Magic Mike Goes To The Pacific. Even the villain of the piece is played by Miyavi, an attractive Japanese musician making his English-language film debut.

Unbroken has its share of effective moments and a few that fall flat. The structure of the film starts us off in a tense action sequence during World War II and then winds back to depict some not-so-intriguing childhood flashbacks I suspect are there primarily because they’re in the book. (Some of the dialogue in this sequence is pretty painful.) The later obstacles are suitably grueling, if not exactly gritty, and maybe none of it would work if Jack O’Connell weren’t so engaging. He was scrappier in this year’s lesser-seen feisty indie Starred Up, but here he proves himself a worthy leading man in mainstream fare, too.

Unbroken may slip into the Oscar race as a crowd-pleaser, as these films often tend to, with a Best Picture nomination, though tepid critical reaction could just as easily hurt its chances. Jack O’Connell would have a fighting shot at a Best Actor nod in a year that wasn’t already so overstuffed with kudos-ready leading men, but he’ll have to wait his turn while Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch get their due. As for Jolie, the slot that once might have been hers now seems more likely to go to another director of a historical biopic, Ava DuVernay.selma-marchIt’s almost shocking that it took until 2014 for moviegoers to get a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Though it also took us until 2012 to get one about Abraham Lincoln.) There are few American legends so towering, so influential, and so worthy of seeing of seeing on the big screen as King. (The man has his own holiday!) Selma is focused exclusively on 1965, the most tumultuous and significant year of the Civil Rights movement, when King was already a powerful and beloved minister and activist, at a point where he could choose to push forward, at the risk of getting his friends and other innocent people killed, or step back, letting the nation’s white leaders, primarily President Lyndon B. Johnson, deal with the Negro Problem when they got around to it.

For Dr. King, of course, that wasn’t much of a decision to make. While many white men in power fundamentally agreed with King’s principles, actually enforcing them was too politically dicey. Black men and women technically already had the right to vote in 1965, but white bureaucracy in the South often unjustly prevented them from doing so, leaving African-Americans without representation in the police force, juries, and government. Selma highlights all of these issues quickly and effectively, though it uses a little more talk than action in so doing.

King is played by David Oyelowo as effectively as you can imagine anybody doing so, and it’s just one turn in a wholly effective African-American ensemble that also features Oprah Winfrey, Common, Short Term 12‘s excellent Keith Stanfield, and Orange Is The New Black‘s villain Lorraine Toussaint. Selma was directed by a black woman, and comes most alive in scenes between its black actors. The issues at hand are not so simple as black and white — there are a wide array of opinions and ideas amidst King’s followers, and all are given a fair shake. Not everyone who wants to see African-Americans treated equally agrees with King’s methodology — some wish him to be more extreme, some less. Perhaps it shouldn’t feel so fresh and exciting for a major awards release to feature black characters talking to each other about political strategies, but it does, and that builds a lot of goodwill toward Selma.SELMA

Fittingly, most of Selma takes place in Selma. Where the film falters a bit is when it steps outside that city to take us into the White House, in King’s meetings with Johnson (played reasonably well by Tom Wilkinson), and into other rooms with other white men in power, like a judge played by Martin Sheen and Tim Roth’s Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Particularly awkward is a hammy cameo by Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, who seems like he should be twirling a mustache. The dynamic between King and Johnson is intriguing enough for maybe one scene of this movie, but otherwise, we needn’t see a bunch of moments telling us what all these white guys are thinking and doing throughout all this, because we already know. None of these characters are particularly well fleshed-out; they are talking heads, and they undermine the down-to-earth authenticity Selma builds in Alabama. Most of what transpires in the city of Selma feels real; a lot of what happens outside it feels phony. What matters in Selma is what happens in Selma, but we spend a fairly large portion of the movie in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery, away from King and his followers.

With Oprah Winfrey as producer and Brad Pitt, winner of last year’s Best Picture Oscar for the dynamo 12 Years A Slave, (another significant film about African-American issues, naturally), executive producing, I’m not sure if the makers of Selma felt it was necessary to have a lot of white guys in the movie to lend some star power, or give Caucasian audiences a proxy, or if they really did think this was the best use of Selma‘s screen time. (At least there is no awkward Pitt cameo this time.) DuVernay’s direction is mostly effective and occasionally impressive, though a few of her choices feel too obvious. Virtually every scene that takes place in the White House unfolds in the Oval Office, which feels stagey and claustrophobic. henry-g-sanders-oprah-winfrey-annie-lee-cooper-selmaI also had some trouble with the film’s final moments, featuring the marchers singing muted underneath an uplifting song by English singer Fink from 2011, which then leads into an on-the-nose (Golden Globe-winning) rap from Common and some rather self-congratulatory closing credits. It’s an aggressively bogus way to end an otherwise lovely film.

Selma may leave us on a false note, but I won’t do the same in my review, because there’s too much here worth celebrating. DuVernay lands the film’s most crucial moments, especially the shocking brutality King’s peaceful protestors faced at the hands of the Alabama police, who are mostly faceless in their attacks, rendering them as scary as any vampire or zombie. There are also several compelling dramatic scenes, including an interaction between Martin and wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) that addresses his infidelity, and the film’s best scene, in which an octogenarian grieves for the grandson (Stanfield) who was just senselessly shot by police. Henry G. Sanders has only a few scenes in this film, but this one is so immensely powerful — I wish there was Oscar talk for him, since it’s one of the year’s most effective supporting turns.

In these and a handful of other moments, DuVernay makes the struggles of the people of Selma immediate and heart-wrenching, forcing us to feel, as King and his followers did, that change needed come to imminently and at any price. I wish the wonky political scenes had as much grit and gravitas, and that DuVernay was able to sell the entire movie the way she so effectively lands the scenes of panic and violence. But I’d much rather see a version of Selma that gets the violence and bloodshed right and falters a bit in the talking head scenes than one that nails the white politicians and rings false note after false note in depicting the people of Selma.

There could have been even more Selma in Selma, and a lot less Oval Office — a fuller view of these people’s lives and the struggles they were up against. But I’m mostly content with the Selma we got. It is poised to snag a Best Picture nomination, is likely to earn a nod for Oyelowo, and may make history if DuVernay becomes the first black female to find herself in the Best Director race. It seems perfectly fitting that a film about a black man who made history could do so for a black woman as well.

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