Olympic runner Louis Zamperini (O'Connell) had an eventful war, crash-landing in the Pacific, then surviving being adrift, captured by the Japanese, interned in a POW camp and hauling coal as a slave.
Angelina Jolie’s second film behind the camera, written in part by the Coen Brothers, begins somewhere over the Pacific. We dart amongst the crew of a B-24 bomber as they repel enemy fighters, with special attention given to spry, blue-eyed bombardier Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). Assisted by seamless CG and Roger Deakins’ godly cinematography, it’s a thrilling declaration of intent: young men pushed to their limits, where survival is its own heroism.
Based on Laura ‘Seabiscuit’ Hillenbrand’s vivid biography, Zamperini’s story doesn’t lack for incident. His next flight crash-lands in the ocean, and he and two fellow survivors (including Domhnall Gleeson’s stoic Captain ‘Phil’ Phillips) drift on inflatable rafts and fend off sharks for a monumental 47 days. When rescue finally arrives, it is via an enemy patrol boat. In one of the few resonantly Coen lines, Zamperini awakens his pal saying, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news…”
This is feel-the-width epic material complete with honey-coloured flashbacks to a youth of petty crime, endurance running and an appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to warily size up the Japanese team. Jolie is working in broad strokes, which isn’t a sin. There are worse inspirations than the majesty and imperilled masculinity of David Lean.
The shadow of The Bridge On The River Kwai looms large. Zamperini, half-starved, is finally tossed into the cauldron of a Tokyo POW camp for his next inventory of ordeals. He is singled out for humiliation by sadistic commander Mutsushiro Watanabe (Japanese rock star Miyavi) with the obligatory queasy, homoerotic overtone.
Years ago Tony Curtis was eyed for Zamperini, and O’Connell shares that movie-star magnetism. But there’s an edge to him. He is exciting but unreachable, like those next-gen Brandos Fassbender and Gosling. Where’s the heart? The charm? Abetted by Jolie’s Mel Gibson-like fixation with cruelty, the film exalts its hero as Christ-symbol more than unbreakable American soul. A myth is made out of the man, complete with Coldplay whining over the credits.
Here lies the rub. Zamperini’s life was so extraordinary it plays like a movie — a movie you may already have seen.
Lavish and sporadically powerful, Jolie's POW biopic may have just enough gravity to entice the Academy, but struggles to bring truth to an unbelievable truth.