(2014) True Life Drama (Universal) Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Louis McIntosh, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, John D’Leo, Alex Russell, Jordan Patrick Smith, Spencer Lofranco, Stephen J. Douglas, Morgan Griffin. Directed by Angelina Jolie
Live doesn’t treat us all the same way. Some people it throws greater challenges to than others. While we often think of the things life hurls at ourselves personally as things that are enormous obstacles at least to us, there are people who, when we see what life has thrown at them we can all agree they had a really rough time of it.
Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) was a bombardier in the Pacific theater during World War II. Before that, he had been something of a hooligan as a child (Valleroy), picked on for his Italian heritage but convinced by his brother Pete (D’Leo) to try out for the track team. Louis is a strong runner and eventually makes the U.S. Olympic team and has the highest finish of any American in the 5,000 meter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He’s expected to medal in 1940, but by then the world was otherwise occupied.
While out on a search and rescue mission, the plane he’s on basically falls apart, three of the four engines fail and the pilot is forced to ditch the plane into the Pacific. Three crewmen survive the crash – Pete (Gleeson), Mac (Wittrock) and Louis. The men are adrift for 47 days and are eventually picked up. Unfortunately, they are picked up by the Japanese navy.
Taken as prisoners of war, the men are separated and Louis is sent to a camp where the vicious Corporal Watanabe (Ishihari) is in charge. A petulant man used to wealth and privilege, he is seething that he couldn’t get an officer’s position and is instead relegated to duty he considers beneath him. He takes it out on Louis, an Olympic athlete who is already far more successful in his life than Watanabe, whom the prisoners have nicknamed the Bird, has been. Louis is often singled out for savage beatings and cruel punishments. What he endures is far more than most of us would be physically able to and survive, but Louis isn’t like most of us.
Jolie had been taken by the bestselling book based on Louis’ experiences and had been amazed to find out that Zamperini’s home was in sight of her own Southern California abode. The two became friends and Jolie was determined to make this movie about his life. Unfortunately, the real Zamperini passed away in 2014 well before the film was released, although he did live long enough to see a rough cut of the film in the hospital shortly before he passed away.
Jolie has a good eye as a director and her first film in that capacity, In the Land of Milk and Honey was an encouraging debut. There were some decisions here that she made that I don’t think worked in the film. For example, the first sequence in the movie is Louis and his crew on a bombing run. The scene highlights Jolie’s strengths as a director, keeping the camera inside the plane for the most part, giving us an idea of what it’s like to be in a tin tube being shot at while trying to complete a precision bombing run. The scene is very compelling and tense and yet Jolie chooses that moment to break away and do a flashback of Louis’ boyhood shenanigans. That’s all well and good but what she wound up doing was undercutting the audience’s connection to the scene. She would have been better served in this case to tell the story in a more linear fashion and skip the flashbacks but in her defense, flashbacks have become a much more common element in films over the past few years. Some films shouldn’t have them.
O’Connell has to carry the film and he does a credible job. He shows a great deal of potential (and has already gotten a couple of high-profile roles in upcoming movies largely due to his performance here) and while he didn’t knock it out of the park completely, he did get a solid base hit and I don’t doubt there are some good things to come from this young English actor.
The mostly-male supporting cast has some good young talent, including Gleeson, Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund as a sympathetic American officer in the P.O.W. camp. A lot of focus will be on Ishihara as Watanabe; the baby-faced young actor brings out the monster in Watanabe, giving him three dimensions when the tendency would be to make him less human. Making him more human really makes him more of a monster, in my opinion.
This has to be one of the bigger disappointments of 2014. I was really looking forward to this film and thought it might well be an Oscar contender, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of people hated on this movie which was why we got to this movie so late in the season, but it was a lot better than I’d heard it was, but still not as good as I’d hoped it would be. Zamperini was an extraordinary man and definitely deserved to have his story told. I just wish that the movie based on his life could have been a bit better.
REASONS TO GO: O’Connell does a fine job. Zamperini was an amazing gentleman deserving of a cinematic biography.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks aren’t as organic as they should have been. Too many platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence including scenes of intense brutality in the POW camp along with some brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ishihari is actually the Japanese pop star Miyavi but his iMDB credits list him under his given name. He actually had a very difficult time with some of the cruelties he had to perform and actually vomited on-set during one scene. The real Watanabe was unrepentant about his actions in a 1998 interview on the occasion of the Olympic torch run depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Railway Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10