Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
USA, 2014. 3 Arts Entertainment, Jolie Pas, Legendary Entertainment. Screenplay by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Produced by Matthew Baer, Angelina Jolie, Erwin Stoff, Clayton Townsend. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Production Design by Jon Hutman. Costume Design by Louise Frogley. Film Editing by William Goldenberg, Tim Squyres. Academy Awards 2014. American Film Institute 2014. Screen Actors Guild Awards 2014.
The incredible true story of Louis Zamperini is that of a life so overwhelmed with adventure that it cannot be contained into one feature film. Such is proven by Angelina Jolie’s valiant attempt to do so but what results is, even at its most compelling, an uneven and slightly overlong film. Jack O’Connell is sturdy as the young man from Torrance, California, whose troubled childhood was followed by Olympic glory as a runner before serving in World War II lead to him stranded on the ocean for more than a month, and then spending time in two Japanese prisoner of war camps. The duress of living on a raft with his two surviving soldiers after their plane is shot down seems an impossible obstacle, with them barely surviving on raw fish in the unforgiving sun, but that turns out to be nothing when their capture puts Zamperini in the way of “The Bird”, a camp commander who makes Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge on the River Kwai look like Mary Poppins (or imagine Ryuichi Sakamoto in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence without the sexy tension). This all makes for a truly miraculous story of survival, and Jolie does her best to make sure that it is told without manipulative fanfare and often succeeds: the subtle moments are the most powerful (Zamperini nodding to a Japanese athlete at the Berlin games, or visiting The Bird’s cabin after the war is over) and she is sensitive about letting these men emotionally express themselves in ways that are tender and moving, not in ways that are typical in testosterone-fueled war movies but are also never mawkish either (the way Domhnall Gleeson cradles Finn Wittrock in his arms on the raft, for example, or how Zamperini has a cathartic cry while kneeling unclothed before his captors). Other sequences are just downright cheesy, including badly directed and acted scenes of his youth (right down to the Mamma Mia! Italian family) or a moment of ultimate defiance against his commander that, incorrectly, aims to be the central moment of triumph. The script that has been assembled by various writers who have taken a stab at this story over the years (Zamperini’s life as a film project has been around in one form or another since the late forties) shows its raggedly assembled nature in a narrative that keeps shifting without a central focus, and there’s a constant, nagging reminder of better World War II movies situated in the Pacific that are never far from your memory. It’s heart is always in the right place, however, and it pays rightful tribute to a truly extraordinary story, but it would have been better served as a miniseries.