Heartbreaking, inspiring true story, told and directed in straight up high quality realism. There is some true intensity in the fighting scenes, in the survival scenes on the raft, and in the prison camp with its torture and hardship. And this is balanced by determination and hope.
If that sounds generic, in a way that fits—the movie follows some tried and true formulas. The beginning has us with the hero, Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell), in a big bomber heading for some targets against Japan in WWII. As trouble begins, leading to the crash which makes up the real start of the movie, we also get flashbacks to his simple Italian-American childhood. This is effective, but it's sentimental stuff. And it lets you know the kind of wholesome intentions of the movie.
There is a lot going on here, in three main sections: running, surviving on a raft, and the prison camps. That Zamperini suffers and endures is the point of the film, and in that way the narrative is very straight forward. There are villains and buddies. The skies rain bombs and the sea is full of sharks. Some people are merciless, and others kind. But in the middle, through every turn and travail, is Zamperini. "If you can take it, you can make it," is a mantra in the film, and that's the message.
The direction and photography were first rate
very subtle in a spectacular way (or vice versa). It's a truly fine film, and director Angelina Jolie (in her second feature, after a terrible first try) does a really good job. The story, co-written by the Coen brothers and others, based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, is a great bit of history, quite sensational stuff.
So why did we leave the movie feeling just so-so about it all? I'm not sure how to nicely say this, but it's really a good story, well told, lacking some quality of surprise or depth it really needs to rise above. As amazing as the photography and editing (and so on) are, it's all in service to a fairly ordinary kind of story. Not that this man's life is ordinary at all, but the way it develops and is told is oddly routine, as narrative storytelling.
Good stuff, for sure. It's a bit hard to take sometimes for its brutality--there is a lot of graphic, personal violence--and the Japanese camps are portrayed as truly cruel (which many in Japan object to). But it's an impressive movie in many ways.