Welcome to Contender or Pretender 2014, a new Awardswatch series where, in each entry, we profile a different 2014 film and try to determine whether or not it is bound for Oscar glory next winter. The subject of our inaugural entry is perhaps the most high-profile early contender for the 2014 inaugural season, thanks to the presence of one of the world’s most famous names in the director’s chair, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.
The Hopeful: Unbroken
Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Miyavi, Domnhall Gleason, Jai Courtney
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: December 25
2014 marks Jolie’s return to the big screen following the longest absence of her career; her last feature film appearance was in 2011’s animated Kung Fu Panda 2, her last live action appearance 2010’s The Tourist. But while Jolie attempts to conquer the summer box office in front of the camera in the fantasy blockbuster Maleficent, it is behind the camera that she will attempt to conquer the awards season. Based on the 2010 bestselling book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken will tell the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track runner who served in the Pacific Theater of World War II, where he endured the harrowing ordeals of being stranded on a life raft for forty-seven days, followed by imprisonment for two and a half years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Developing a film about Zamperini’s life has been a long-held goal of Universal Pictures, which has owned his life rights since 1957. In Hillenbrand’s book they found the blueprint they needed to do so, acquiring the rights in 2011.
The high-profile talent working on this film is far from limited to its A-List director- indeed, few Oscar contenders this year can match the names working with Jolie behind the camera. The script is the product, over several drafts, of no less than four Oscar winning or nominated writers; Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), William Nicholson (Shadowlands), and finally, the legendary Coen brothers (Fargo). Taking charge of the film’s cinematography is Roger Deakins (Skyfall), an 11-time Oscar nominee who is arguably the top name in his field yet to take home a golden statue. The same is true for six-time Oscar also-ran Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox), who will be composing the film’s original score.
Of course, one of the keys to this film’s success rests with the portrayal of Zamperini himself. Though Universal initially hoped to recruit an established name such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the role eventually went to British 23-year old Jack O’Connell (Skins). Though little known to U.S. audiences, O’Connell has won rave reviews for performances in independent films in his native country, such as prison drama Starred Up, and Universal is clearly banking on this film turning O’Connell into a star, as evidenced by his landing a lead role in their upcoming MI6 drama Section 6.
With all of the top-shelf talent involved with this project, it would seem on the surface to have no obstacles to Oscar glory next winter. However, a skeptical observer could draw on several reasons to doubt the film’s prospects. The primary question mark surrounding the film would be Jolie herself; her directorial track record consists solely of 2011’s Bosnian War drama In The Land of Blood and Honey, was greeted with a decidedly mixed critical reception (56 rating on Metacritic, 56% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). Another question mark lies in the script; though the names that have been attached to it are undoubtedly impressive, the fact that it has gone through so many well-publicized drafts could indicate a difficulty in translating Zamperini’s story to the screen. Furthermore, the Coen brothers, who tackled the script’s final draft, have a decidedly poor track record when writing for a director besides themselves – consisting of 1985’s Crimewave (34 on Metacritic), 1998’s The Naked Man (20% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), and 2012’s Gambit (19% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
There can be no doubt that Unbroken has all the makings of a classic Oscar film, combining award-winning pedigree on every level of the production with an epic, real-life story of overcoming adversity and survival set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Is a classic Oscar film the best route to the Dolby Theater in 2014, however? World War II may no longer be the AMPAS catnip that it once was- the last Best Picture winner set during the period was 1996’s The English Patient, and in the last fifteen years only four have even been nominated for the category; 2002’s The Pianist, 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima, 2007’s Atonement, and 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.
Furthermore, Unbroken seems to be the type of biopic that spans an entire life, or at least from childhood deep into adulthood. This epic, all-encompassing style of biopic was once a surefire recipe for Oscar glory, but in recent years that has been turned on its head somewhat- with AMPAS favoring films that examine a single period or aspect of a subject’s life, such as 2010’s The King’s Speech or 2012’s Lincoln, while true film stories that attempt to chronicle an entire life such as 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler have struggled recently, with that film’s impressive box-office haul and award-winning pedigree on both sides of the camera failing to translate to a single Oscar nomination, despite the backing of master Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein.
One thing is for certain; this will be Universal’s top priority for the 2014-2015 season, and the fact that the have already released a teaser shows how strongly they intend to back this film. As recently as the early 2000s, the studio was a strong player in awards races, scoring Best Picture nominations in every year save one between 2000 and 2005, winning for A Beautiful Mind in 2001. The studio has since faltered from that impressive pace, with only two Best Picture nominations since 2005- 2008’s Frost/Nixon and 2012’s Les Misérables, but these nominations demonstrate that they still know how to handle a clear-cut player, which they surely believe Unbroken to be.
So, does Unbroken deserve to be the prohibitive Oscar favorite that much of Hollywood seems to want to anoint it as a year in advance? Certainly, the technical pedigree of the film should mean that nominations in below-the-line categories are as close to guaranteed as anything can be this far away from next season, and the film should feature on any early list predicting Best Picture in the expanded field. How strongly the film is a contender to win these categories, as well as how strongly it will contend for Best Director with Jolie, Best Actor with O’Connell, and other top categories will depend on how well she is able to execute Zamperini’s story, and whether her name on the poster can propel the film to a strong showing at the Christmas box office despite the lack of names in the cast itself.
[author image=”http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v193/erikdean/0341151b-3137-4134-9de4-84a1560d6736_zps040dc936.jpg” ]Peter has been on the Awardswatch forums since the start of 2012. He’s a student in the real world and a student of pop culture, and he enjoys predicting who will win awards because it combines his love of pop culture with his love of competition and speculating about the future.[/author]