The brilliantly staged crippled landing of the initial bombing expedition spookily foreshadows a second flight, a search for lost fliers in a patched together plane that, in a harrowing scene, makes a crash landing and breaks up in the middle of the Pacific. The only survivors are Louie, his blond pilot buddy Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and a new crewman they don't really know, Mac (Finn Wittrock), who array themselves on two yellow life rafts and hope for the best.It soon becomes evident that the most pathetic person in the film is the sadistic commandant, a cowardly weakling who needs to see the sufferings of others in order to feel strong. His fury at seeing Louie holding a heavy post, like Christ on the cross, is a vision of the devil enraged. Louie's torment hearkens back to the crucifix in his parish church where as small boy he sat distracted. But suddenly, amid his agony, he is one with his Savior.
The least one can say is that their experience is rather more mundane than, but perhaps equally perilous to, that of the solitary lad lost at sea in Life of Pi. As the merciless sun bears down, the men become crispy red and try to keep talking to maintain their alertness. Sickened by raw gull meat, they are sometimes lucky enough to grab the odd sea creature, prompting Phil to observe that the Japanese eat their fish raw. Sharks swim menacingly around the rafts, and what the men hope is a friendly plane passes by, only to reveal itself as Japanese when it strafes them. Mac expires, but Louie and Phil manage to last 47 days before being picked up by a Japanese warship.
As realistically as the men's deprivations are depicted in the film, the half-hour the film spends at sea simply can't render the sheer, slow agony the book so effectively conveys —the doubts, struggles, delirium, mood swings, surpassing hunger and thirst, and constant sense of peril; surprisingly, the narrative goes a little slack during this central stretch. Still, despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation, Louie's survivor's spirit emerges unmistakably here, a tenacious bond with life he won't easily relinquish. Phil has religion to get him through, Louie merely the memory of his brother's corny slogan, "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory."
More than one moment of pain awaits him, unfortunately, at his next destination, a jungle hellhole where he and Phil are stashed in separate cells barely big enough to contain them. Unlike Hillenbrand's book, the film is unable to convey the staggering misery they were forced to endure in the form of dysentery and other diseases, infinitesimal rations, enforced silence and perpetual fear. The only sort of punishment Jolie seems confident to present cinematically is of the corporal persuasion, which is what Louie encounters repeatedly at the hands of new camp commandant Wantanabe (Miyavi), nicknamed "The Bird," a malicious sadist who zeroes in on the athletic American from the outset and never lets up, striking him repeatedly with his wooden stick, forcing fellow inmates to hit him in the face and otherwise abusing him for reasons both recreational and deeply twisted.
The large cell block in the new camp allows its inmates to talk, share rumors and otherwise fraternize in a way that takes a lot of the edge off despite their jeopardy. Nothing we see conveys the grave threat the men were constantly under (more than a third of all Allied POWs under the Japanese died in detention, compared to only one per cent under the Germans), and the tension is further alleviated by an interesting but comparatively relaxed interlude in which Louie is urged to broadcast on the radio, which at least serves the purpose of letting America and his family know that he's still alive.
Transferred to yet another camp, Louie is pushed to the virtual breaking point, leading to a climactic scene which, the way Jolie stages it, throws off unmistakable crucifixion reverberations. These don't seem specifically warranted by any other internal dramatic factors even if they do, in fact, relate to the religious conversion Louie underwent postwar, but are detailed in the book but are only mentioned onscreen in a passing end title.
One other great moment from the book that, oddly, doesn't turn up onscreen is the American prisoners noticing a spectacular sight in the far distance, which turns out to be one of the atomic bomb explosions that soon brought the war to an end. It's hard to imagine this wouldn't have made for an arresting, even surreal visual interlude.
What Jolie succeeds in doing to a substantial degree is representing her hero's physical ordeal and his tenacious refusal to give up when it would have been very easy to do so. What she and her more than estimable quarter of screenwriters — Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson — have not entirely pulled off is dramatizing the full range of Louie's internal suffering, emotional responses and survival mechanisms. Nor have they made any of the secondary characters pop from the anonymous background of prisoner extras. In the great old studio days of the 1930s, writers, directors and and actors knew how to give supporting roles real character and sharp identities within a few seconds; such is emphatically not the case here.
Just recently recognized outside the U.K. due to his work in Starred Up and 300: Rise of An Empire, O'Connell is a pleasure to watch at all times here. He has energy, seems watchful and resourceful by instinct, is open to others and, crucially, seems like a man who, even when he doesn't necessarily win, will nonetheless prevail. Always able to roll with the punches, physical and otherwise, he looks and sometimes behaves like a lively terrier.
The flashy role of the dreaded Bird is charismatically filled by Japanese singer Miyavi. Jolie could have done a bit more to build up the character's mythology and the sense of dread he imparts. But the young actor, working mostly in English, has a beauty and good sense of timing that serve him well in this malevolent part. (Read more.)
Here is an interview with the real Louie Zamperini. Share