Tons of war films and sports films have depicted the unbreakable human spirit and the ability of mankind to endure tough, abusive and even torturous physical challenges. Director Angelina Jolie's second feature is now another to add to the list and it's one to go to the bottom, as it doesn't stand out or does anything to make it rise. Jolie doesn't put a stamp on this or shows us why this film is any different than the myriad of others that do the same thing. Other than making a tribute to Louis Zamperini, Jolie doesn't justify the film's existence.
At its core, it's the story of a man who gets captured and held in servitude and tortured. He endures much pain until he's finally freed. Ironically, Jolie's husband Brad Pitt last year did a movie that had the same story. It was 12 Years a Slave. Even though Jolie demonstrated great promise and potential with her debut feature, it's evident that she is some kilometers behind Steve McQueen, the director who won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave.
It is perhaps unfair to ask this question, but what is it about Louis Zamperini that's more extraordinary than Solomon Northup who was the subject of 12 Years a Slave? What is it that we're expected to learn from Zamperini that we didn't learn from Northup?
In a year that has seen films on men like Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, men who are scientists and men who use their minds and not their bodies, this film feels out of place and behind the times or the zeitgeist. Therefore, it reads as uninteresting and inconsequential.
Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson, the film goes through the checkpoints of Zamperini's experience and gives us the highlights. Yet, it never dives deep into any of it. People spout superficial platitudes or obvious statements. The actors playing Zamperini's elder brother as well as a fellow soldier come to mind. There's no examination. There's no digging. It's all just laid out very flatly.
Louis Zamperini was an Olympic athlete who served in World War II. He experienced a series of harrowing situations that could have killed him at any turn. He was in a firefight in a B-52 bomber. He was in a plane crash. He was stranded at sea for 42 days. He was interned at a Japanese POW camp where he was supremely abused.
Through all of this he didn't die and most people going into this film would know this, so it makes no sense that this film should try to build tension with that as the premise. The filmmakers should instead take the opportunity to examine and dig into the characters or situation. Sadly, this movie doesn't.
For example, after Zamperini survives the plane crash and becomes stranded at sea with two other men, the point of the scenes that follow shouldn't have been if the three men live or die, or if they do or don't, how they do or don't. Instead, the filmmakers should have taken the opportunity to delve into these characters. Aside from learning the two other men's nicknames, Phil and Mac, we get nothing deeper about who these guys are.
Domhnall Gleeson (About Time and Frank) plays Phil and Finn Wittrock (All My Children and American Horror Story: Freak Show) plays Mac, and, again, aside from their names, we get nothing about these two men. Zamperini was stranded out there on a tiny, yellow, life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for over a month with these two guys, and this movie doesn't give them hardly any dialogue, dialogue that could have revealed history, where Phil and Mac were from or their families or anything. We get nothing except the particulars of how they survived for so long. We already watched Life of Pi and All is Lost, so we didn't need this. It was a waste.
Prior to this 42-day sequence, there is a flashback to 1936 when Zamperini attended the Summer Olympics in Berlin. The flashback was unnecessary for two reasons. One reason is that it gives us nothing about what it was like for Zamperini there or why those Olympics were important in general, the politics around it or anything. Second reason was that un-like Foxcatcher, which was also about an Olympic athlete, it doesn't really use the idea of it to any great effect.
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini. People loved O'Connell in the recent British prison drama Starred Up. Because this film is so much about Zamperini being in a Japanese prison camp, some see O'Connell as a perfect fit. Except, he's not. He's flat and dull and one-note. His physical transformation is not impressive. Christian Bale in The Machinist or Rescue Dawn is vastly more impressive and puts O'Connell to shame.
Where this film could have shined is in the relationship between Zamperini and his sadistic prison guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe aka "The Bird," played by Japanese musician Miyavi. The Bird carried around a wooden stick like a cane and used it to whip the prisoners brutally, but he took a particular sadism with regard to Zamperini. Instead of just watching Zamperini endure the brutality as The Bird dished it out, there could have been examination, exploring why The Bird did what he did, but no!
Two Stars out of Five. Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language. Running Time: 2 hrs. and 17 mins.