For awards watchers, there was one last film that remained to be seen — until Sunday, when Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” played to audiences in Los Angeles and New York. Though the film had premieres in Australia and London, reviews are under embargo until Monday. But judging by the guild screenings in L.A., Universal Pictures has a heavy hitter on its hands. The film is a surefire best picture nominee, with Jolie likely to break into the director race. Acting categories could be harder to crack with such stiff competition, but star Jack O’Connell could make his way into the best actor race, and supporting actor Miyavi, who plays the main villain, also has a fair shot.
The film first screened in the morning for the SAG Nominating Committee, ending to rapturous applause. SAG is generally a warm audience, and the star presence of Jolie certainly fueled the excitement. But a standing ovation was afforded not only to Jolie but to star O’Connell, who was clearly caught off guard. Also joining in the Q&A, moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley, were actors Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson and Miyavi.
“Unbroken” comes with an impressive pedigree; Joel and Ethan Coen are among the credited writers who adapted Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller and the cinematography is by the great Roger Deakins, who has 11 Oscar nominations for his previous work, including “No Country for Old Men” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” It tells the true story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who, as a soldier in WWII, survived in a life raft lost at sea for 47 days before being sent to a Japanese prison camp for over two years.
While the panel spoke with great reverence about working on the film and Zamperini, who died earlier this year, there were moments of humor as well. Most of the cast lost weight to portray the difficult conditions their characters experienced; Gleeson declared he was happy to do it for a great film. “You don’t want to starve yourself for a sh—y movie,” he said. When Hedlund revealed he earned his SAG card for the film “Troy,” Riley pointed out that the star of that movie (Jolie’s husband, Brad Pitt) is a pretty good actor. Quipped Gleeson about his father, “Brendan Gleeson is really good in it, too.”
While the film is a true crowdpleaser, odds are it will also play well with Academy voters. Deakins, who has never won an Oscar despite 11 nominations, could win for his gorgeous work here, which includes stunning aerial shots of fighter planes and a long sequence set at sea. He will face tough competition from this year’s winner, Emmanuel Lubezki, who did impressive work on “Birdman.”
The British O’Connell is sure to have fans — he plays a true hero, loses weight, and is constantly compelling — but far from a sure thing with such a crowded best actor race. With Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne, Steve Carell and Benedict Cumberbatch considered likely nominees, he will have to battle for a slot against the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Channing Tatum, Timothy Spall and especially David Oyelowo and Bradley Cooper.
Japanese rockstar Miyavi, who plays a soldier known as “the Bird” who singled out Zamperini for torture, could break into the supporting actor race for his chilling performance, but that field is also very crowded. In addition, he doesn’t appear onscreen until the midway point. But he makes the most of his screen time and is a truly fresh discovery — when it was revealed that this role represented his first-ever acting effort, there were audible gasps from the audience. He also moved the crowd as he spoke about how difficult it was to inflict violence on his castmates in some of the scenes, admitting that it caused him to vomit.
The adapted screenplay category is also a tough one this year, but “Unbroken” has a good shot, previous screenplay Oscar winners the Coen brothers sharing credit with previous screenplay nominee Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. The source material is a beloved book, but that could work for or against the script, which obviously had to condense much of Zamperini’s life story.
“Unbroken” has all the elements to figure prominently into the race — it’s a true story about a real-life hero told in epic fashion with a charismatic and beloved director promoting it. But as Jolie talked about showing Zamperini the film shortly before he died and how much he loved it, she noted, “That’s the only review that matters.”