JACK OF ALL TRADES: Jack O’Connell, ’71 and Unbroken


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Warning: SPOILERS
starred upI think I’m glad I wasn’t at Jack O’Connell’s home for the holidays this season.
What an amazing year he’s had. He first became well known in the U.S. for his stirring and starring role as the juvenile who is sent to an adult correctional facility in the prison drama Starred Up.
He followed this with the thriller ’71, about a British soldier who gets left behind by his troupe after a riot in Belfast during the Troubles and has to make his way back to safety.
And now he stars in Unbroken, the based on the true story of Louis Zamperini biopic, an Olympic medalist who was imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp during WWII and was treated particularly cruelly by the commanding officer.
It’s an astonishing series of performances to have so close together.

 

(And let’s just pretend that his role in 300: Rise of an Empire never took place, shall we?)

 

I mean, I’m sure that by now there’s simply no being around him.

 

And he’s just so damn good looking. So good looking that one of the things that has probably helped him in his career is not playing roles that require him to be so attractive (about the worst sorts of parts a really handsome actor can take—for some reason, those sorts of characters always seems to work against the performer, rather than for him; it took Matthew McConaughey a long time to live down his looks).

 

In fact, about the only thing that can bring O’Connell down, I suspect, and I have no doubt it’s just around the corner, is for Hollywood to come calling and cast him in a series of rom coms with some actress whose talent they also want to exploit and then destroy.

 

When it comes to his recent performances, there is something all three roles have in common. They are all about characters who are thrust into situations where they have little to no control over what happens to them.

 

They’re only goal is to survive, but how and if they survive is often not up to them.

 

He seems to be cornering the market on reactive characters, people placed in situations where they can usually only respond to events, rather than be cast in plots or stories where action, or having a strong, definitive goal is what drives the character.

 

I previously took a look at Starred Up in an earlier review. The screenplay is a bit formulaic, but the movie itself is brutal and vivid with O’Connell leaping off the screen like some sort of new James Dean

 

71In ’71, O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a naïve and newly enlisted in the British army who, along with his fellow soldiers, is thrust into a situation they are hardly prepared for. They are taken by their commander, also inexperienced, to make a search in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, but end up causing a riot.

 

Hook is accidentally left behind and has to make his way back to headquarters, but he doesn’t know the way or who to trust, and to make matters worse, he stumbles upon members of the British Military Reaction Force, undercover types, who are actually involved in some sort of skullduggery with the IRA, and who now need Hook dead before he rats them out.

 

The screenplay is by Gregory Burke and has a feeling of the movie Odd Man Out about it, a drama about Irish nationalist, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), who is wounded after a failed robbery and must keep moving from place to place to avoid being caught by the police.

 

Like Hook, McQueen is also at the mercy of the various people he stumbles upon, who either help or hurt him depending on their inclination, and like ’71, the set up gives Burke and the director, Yann Demange, the chance to explore a cross section of people from various walks of life, with different viewpoints and different levels of morality.

 

As a thriller, ‘71 may be a tad conventional (especially when it turns out that the British are as corrupt, or even more so, than the Irish they are fighting) and it all resolves itself in the way that these sorts of things usually do.

 

But still, the film’s a taut and exciting thriller. First rate, in fact. Burke and Demange (a first feature for both), keep the story moving and the characters Hook runs into are well drawn and intriguing. It’s edge of your seat stuff and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

 

unbrokenUnbroken is the new film written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson and directed by Angelina Jolie. I hate to be ambiguous, but how you feel about it will probably depend on how you feel about it.

 

I was completely caught up in it and found it riveting and often deeply, deeply moving.

 

Others may feel that they’ve seen the story before.

 

And I can’t really argue that. It is somewhat familiar and I’m not sure it really brings anything new to the genre of war is hell with being a POW even more hellish (and being a Japanese POW the most hellish of all—see City of Life and Death), but still, it was just one of those films that hit the right way from the very beginning.

 

Simply put, it grabbed hold of me and just wouldn’t let go.

 

The story opens with Zamperini in a bomber under attack from Japanese fighter planes. It has all the reality and breathtaking impact as the opening of Robert Rodat and Steven Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It has such a “you are there” feeling, you are almost fearful you might get shot as well.

 

It’s an amazing bit of directing. For my money, Jolie has it, whatever it is, to command the making of a motion picture. She, along with the cinematographer, Roger Deakins (an amazing bit of artistry) and the editors, William Goldenberg and Tim Squyres, never seem to have the camera in the wrong location and create a heart pounding rhythm throughout the whole film.

 

After the opening scene, the story occasionally goes back to Zamperini’s youth and his rise as a track star, eventually to win a gold medal at the Olympics. And here, the filmmakers have created a beautifully, nostalgic feel of small town life during the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.   Again, the camera, the rhythm, seems incredibly right.

 

The whole storytelling is backed by a beautiful film score of Alexander Desplat’s. As I heard it, I was taken in by its emotional richness, not knowing who had created it. And then, there, at the end, I saw who the composer was, and all I could say to myself was, “of course”. I mean, don’t be surprised if you are taken away by the score of a film and at the end you find out it’s by Desplat. Of course, it is. Who else would it be?

 

The supporting cast is filled in by a number of familiar faces who you just can’t place without going to IMDB. Perhaps the most notable is Garret Hedlund as Fitzgerald (he played Neal Cassady in On the Road and there is just no disguising that voice emanating from an unrecognizable face covered in coal dust) and Domnhall Gleeson as Phil, Zamperini’s best friend (Gleeson was most recently seen in Frank and Calvary).

 

However, much has been made, and so it should be, of Takamasa Ishihara, a rock star in Japan who goes by the name of Miyavi, as the sociopathic camp commander, Watanabe. He takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, taking out his daddy issues on the former athlete with increasingly sadistic methods.   It’s an intense and scary performance.

 

So, yes, I loved the film. I’m not going to apologize for it.

 

At the same time, I do recognize some of the criticism of the movie. As was said, there is something familiar to it, it’s a movie that has been seen before.

 

And there’s also been the accusation of the film being torture porn, that it dwells so much on the sadism of the situation, that it becomes somewhat repetitious and doesn’t feel as if it is going anywhere.

 

In response to these criticisms, I will talk about it in relation to two other films, The Pianist and 12 Years a Slave. When it comes to the movie’s effectiveness, for me it falls somewhere between the two.

 

The issue with 12 Years a Slave that made it seem redundant and repetitious in its depiction of a man subjected to never ending cruelty, is that it didn’t have a structure. It was just a series of loosely connected scenes that often didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

 

In comparison, The Pianist also was also a series of scenes, loosely connected, that dramatized a man subjected to never ending cruelty.

 

But what The Pianist had that 12 Years a Slave didn’t, was a much stronger structure that revolved around time. No matter how terrible Szpilman’s life became in The Pianist, the filmmakers were so strong at always letting us know that time was passing, and when events were happening, and that the story was building to a definite and clear end: that of the war and Szpilman’s ultimate survival.

 

It didn’t seem to wander and get lost as it sometimes felt 12 Years a Slave did.

 

Unbroken has employed the time structure of The Pianist, so again, no matter how cruel and terrible Zamperini’s life became, we had that structure of knowing that the war was coming closer and closer to the end (I do believe this could have been stronger in Unbroken’s case, but still, I think using this type of structure cuts against the accusations of torture porn to me, since the story was going somewhere).

 

But where Unbroken perhaps loses some of its strength is what it has in common with 12 Years… and that’s the attempt at giving a meaning to what happens to the characters. In both cases, the filmmakers try to draw a larger theme about the universe and our relationship to it in how the characters’ survived due to some philosophy or attitude toward life.

 

But I’m sorry. In both cases, I found this idea never remotely convincing and not even an accurate representation of the world we live in. As far as I’m concerned, in both films, neither character survived because of some overarching meaning to their lives or to the universe.

 

Certainly I’ll concede that their psychological outlook helped. But in the end, Zamperini survived because he was in top physical shape so that he could survive the physical cruelties that were inflected on him and, more importantly, because he was very, very, very lucky. He could easily have died many times along the way, like others did. But he didn’t, and it was ultimately only because of a series of a fortuitous events that he didn’t.

 

This is perhaps why The Pianist is the strongest of these three movies. In that film, writer Ronald Harwood and director Roman Polanski never try to give any added meaning to Szpilman’s survival. For them he just survived and that’s all the meaning it had.

 

In Albert Camus’ great book The Plague, about a town that is quarantined when a deadly virus starts infecting the locals, various people try to find meaning in what is happening. But in the end, Camus says that the only meaning to the plague is that it will come back.

 

In the same way, the only meaning to Zamperini’s experiences is that he was one of the lucky ones who survived and that the cruelty of war will come back again and some will survive and some will not and there’s no point in looking for anything deeper than that.

 

 

At any rate, I’m just glad I wasn’t at O’Connell’s home for the holidays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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