Just about everything in this film is broken, from insane casting choices to a host of continuity errors and lacklustre infrastructure. This is Angelina Jolie’s third time directing and so far she’s been met with a lot of opposition – I haven’t seen her other films, but you kind of think to yourself maybe she’s getting stick because of who she is. Well, she is bad. I mean, bad in the sense that she reeks of raw eggs fermenting inside of dead rabid cats behind the camera – she has no idea where to put a camera, how to pace a film, or even assemble and tell a story. It’s all over the place, slow, and is a stark and painful trope of three cinema staples: the bullied kid who trains hard and becomes a successful hero, the survival in the face of physical extremes and certain death flick, and the prisoner of war drama. Sadly, it’s actually based on a real story and you have to feel for Louis Zamperini, whose life story this is, and who alas passed away the year of the film’s release.
The film follows Zamperini’s life, from being a troubled kid through to becoming an Olympic runner and then war hero who was singled out to endure extreme brutality whilst interred in a Japanese P.O.W. Camp during World War II, and it opens with a perilous mission in a bomber over the Pacific with scenes even less convincing than the ones in ‘Memphis Belle’ (90). We see, for example, Zamperini show us he is a hero by caring for one of the wounded gunners – instead of grabbing the bleeding vacant gun and trying to help shoot down the plane threatening to kill the rest of them. The lame attempt at believability is continued with such fare as showing some of the men adrift at sea after a few days and they have all allowed the skin on their faces to burn badly, despite having ample materials to cover up with, then we see them many days later and they all look healthier. The Japs give Zamperini a good hiding and force him to eat gruel on the ground, but then apparently give him a shave before sticking him in a camp to be tortured again, wherein Zamperini is punched in the face by every single other prisoner, and then looks none the worse for ware next we see him (we at least don’t know the time frame in this case, but still, it can’t have been that long), and so on.
There are better moments toward the end of the film, and some of the concentration camp scenes convince, but it takes more than half of the film for them to get there and the rest is terrible. It’s also a casting catastrophe – who would be one’s first choice to play an Italian American war hero who deserves recognition in film? Would it be an actor who thus far has only been convincing at playing violent and sadistic English thugs? No. And yet yes it seems – Jack O’Connell is the man in question and the only time he really convinces here is when he punches a fish right in its beady eye to, I’m not kidding, knock it out. Often seeming to do the acting equivalent of twiddling his thumbs he is exceptionally poor in this – and who is he given to be his all American buddy? Domhnall Gleeson, another actor from this side of the pond who’s character portrayal here is weepy to the point of sycophancy. Then who should show up in the camp, who could possibly make the casting any worse than it is already, but Garrett Hedlund who has still not learned that staring off into space whilst growling neither makes for convincing masculinity nor acting.
The writing is as bad as everything else in the film (from the Cohen brothers, amongst others) – I feel sorry for cinematographer Roger Deakins who has made an effort and received an Oscar nod for it, but it must have been by way of compensation really, I mean in the Olympic Games scenes it’s painfully obvious there is no real crowd thanks to the rubbish digital work. In fact, I didn’t even believe O’Connell was running most of the time, there’s barely a bead of sweat on him and his competitors are clearly allowing him to pass. A tragic film, one which also has two further Oscar nods for sound editing and sound mixing – and alas it could well be these are simply to placate various parties after the movie’s failure to make it into any of the major categories.