Starring: Jack O'Connell, Domhall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Takamasa Ishihara, Garrett Hedlund, C.J. Valleroy, John D'Leo
Rated PG-13 for War Violence including Intense Sequences of Brutality, and for Brief Language
The story of Louis Zamperini, a troublemaker turned Olympic athlete who flew bombers during WWII, only to have his plane crash and spend a record 47 days in a raft and be captured by the Japanese army where he was brutalized, seems too good to be true. Had this not been a true story, the script would have been laughed out of the office of every producer in Hollywood.
But it is true. Well, mostly (some details have been changed for dramatic effect, but that's often necessary for a film to work), but still. Universal actually bought the rights to the story in 1957 in the hopes of making it with Tony Curtis as Zamperini, but the project fell through. Later, Nicolas Cage expressed interest in making the film. It took until 2014 for the film to be released.
It's not hard to see why someone would want to turn it into a movie. Zamperini's story is extraordinary, and it's surprisingly well-told by Angelina Jolie, making her second feature. It is not a perfect film, but it's very, very good.
Louis (Valleroy as a child) is a troublemaker. A young Italian kid, he resorts to drinking and stealing as a way to pass the time and deal with being bullied. But his brother, Pete (D'Leo), encourages him to start running instead, telling him, "If you can take it, you can make it," meaning, if you can take the pain, then you win. It's an expression he takes to heart, and it's put to the test after the aforementioned plane crash (where he is with two other men, Phil (Gleeson) and Mac (Wittrock)) and when he is tortured by a vicious guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, whome the prisoners nickname "the Bird" (Ishihara).
The film succeeds based on its storytelling. I haven't seen Jolie's directorial debut, "In the Land of Blood and Honey," although I do own it. I will say that she knows what she is doing. The camerawork is crisp (courtesy of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) and the editing clear. There are moments of triumph and tragedy, although Jolie stumbles a little with two of the "big moments" near the end of the film; they lack effective set-up.
Acting-wise, the film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Jack O'Connell, an up-and-coming British actor (he was Calisto, the eager warrior in "300: Rise of an Empire"). The script doesn't allow him the latitude of a lot of depth (which happens a lot in mainstream films), but that's okay. His performance is good enough that we accept the character and form a bond with him. That's all that matters. Everyone fills their roles as character actors, meaning they do their jobs but don't steal the spotlight from O'Connell. The exception is Takamasa Ishihara, a Japanese musician with the stage moniker Miyavi. He's a little frightening, and well worthy of our dislike.
If there's any small quibble, it's that I would have liked more time with the story. It's clear that Jolie wants the relationship between Louis and Pete to be meaningful, but too little time is spent with it. The scene in the raft, as strong as it is, lasts a little too long.
But these are small quibbles. This is definitely worth seeing, and could possibly end up on my Top 10 list for 2015 (as a holdover).