Zamperini, played with a stunning conviction by Jack O’Connell, was a mischievous troublemaker at a young age, but thanks from the support of his older brother, was set on the right path and became an athlete, representing the USA in the 1936 Olympic Games, breaking the single lap record in the 5000m race. With his heart set on competing again four years later in Tokyo – when he next found himself on Japanese soil, it was for all of the wrong reasons, as tragedy befell this young man, as after signing up to the army during the Second World War, came an air crash into the ocean, leaving him stranded for weeks with fellow soldiers Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock). Eventually they were discovered, though by the enemy, transpiring in a lengthy spell as prisoners of war, where Zamperini was savagely tormented, daily, by the nefarious captor known as ‘The Bird’ (Miyavi).
Though initially there are fears that this tale is being presented in an overtly cinematic manner, as the story progresses you realise that it has cause to be told in such a way, as this tale is ineffably cinematic. Jolie ensures the tonal change is significant also, as the initial flashbacks and success of Zamperini as a runner is soon disregarded, as we lose that sense of fluffy melodrama and head down a dark, deranged path. Up until they’re on the boat, stranded out at sea, the balance between triumph and disaster is masterfully implemented, as seconds after reaching the finish line in the Olympics, we cut to the plane crashing – as this well structured tale displays the stark differences between the two periods of this man’s life effectively.
But this tale, eventually, becomes one of resilience, forgiveness, and mental strength – and O’Connell excels in the role, able to portray a character as intimidating and driven, as he can vulnerable and empathetic. In the past he’s displayed a real aptitude for being unhinged and unpredictable, and while dropping those traits, it doesn’t detract from his presence, something few actors have; this unique ability to demand the viewer’s attention at all times. Something he managed to achieve as a perpetrator in Starred Up, so it’s undoubtedly amplified now he’s the victim. He’s blessed with a nuanced role too, with an intriguing, complex relationship with The Bird. It’s not a traditional hero and villain scenario, it’s a layered rivalry, with a odd, deep sense of respect from the captor, almost in awe of the prisoner’s perseverance. Miyavi, a famed rock star in Japan, also proves his worth; turning in a chilling display in his first acting performance.
The array of strong performances do justice to a story has been floating around Hollywood for decades, with an initial wish to bring this to the big screen in 1957′ with Tony Curtis in the lead role. Yet this Jolie offering is more than worthy enough to carry this incredible true story, as the director has presented a film that is emotionally exhausting. It’s unrelenting, unforgiving and truly captivating, and by the time the final credits roll you feel like you’ve gone through the motions yourself, alongside our protagonist. There’s a brief moment at the end where a soldier has a pull on a cigarette for what must be the first time in years, a moment so precious, and so rewarding that you can appreciate every second of it, regardless of whether you’re a smoker or not.