Teenage tearaway, 1930s Olympic runner, World War II prisoner-of-war survivor… Why has it taken so long for Hollywood to make a film about the incredible life of Louis Zamperini? Angelina Jolie's third film as a director is a gorgeously shot and hardhitting old-school war drama that’s meant to leave us awestruck by the power of the human spirit. It gets so much right – but still somehow fails to get under Zamperini’s skin.
Jack O’Connell’s scrappy underdog energy is perfect for Zamperini, who we meet at 26 in a gripping scene as he shoots at the Japanese from a B-24 bomber in 1943. In flashbacks we see him as a juvenile delinquent, the son of poor Italians, tearing around California. When little Louis, age 13 or so, discovers there’s more to running than dodging cops he quits booze and fags to train with his brother. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics he catches Hitler’s eye as he runs the fastest lap of the 5,000-metres race.
Is it his athlete’s iron discipline that keeps Zamperini alive when his plane crashes into the Pacific – and he’s stranded on a raft with two buddies? He puts the trio on rations of two squares of chocolate and three sips of water a day. There’s little variety in these scenes, although in a shift from the usual macho bravado of men bonding at war, Jolie shows us the tenderness of these boys. When one of them gets sick, Zam – as his mates call him – holds his hand, tenderly telling him stories of his ma’s gnocchi.
Which is enough drama to fill one life – and one film. But there's another act. After 47 days, the raft is picked up by a Japanese naval vessel and Zamperini spends the next two years being tortured in a POW camp by a deranged officer nicknamed ‘The Bird’ by inmates (played by Japanese popstar Miyavi). The Bird takes a shine to Zamperini and makes a pet of him. But being a psychopathic sadist, he has a funny way of showing affection. The violence here is shocking, but the Bird is a by-numbers mummy’s-boy villain (delicate, feminine, with manicured hands) and after a while he just doesn’t feel dangerous.
Jolie has assembled an A-list team – Roger Deakins behind the camera, the Coen brothers in charge of the script - but while her film is perfectly competent, it hardly dazzles. How does a man live through sheer hell and still hang on to a sense of his true self? You won’t find the answer here.