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This might be the first time I say, “The book was better than the movie” after not even reading the book. It was a best seller for over four years, written by Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote the book on Seabiscuit that was made into the successful film.

You’d think that with that source material, and adapted by the Coen brothers, and co-written by Gladiator’s William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra), what could go wrong? Well, Angelina Jolie behind the camera.

Louie Zamperini had an amazing, true story. He was a high school track star that won a medal in the 1936 Olympics. Of course, the bigger story that year was how Jesse Owens won 4 golds and really ticked off Hitler at these Berlin games.

During World War II, Zamperini ends up in combat. The bombing runs and crashes are filmed well (thanks to one of the best in the business – Roger Deakins). After Zamperini’s plane crashes into the ocean, three soldiers are adrift for 47 days.  You get the usual scenes – sharks circling, food shortages, blisters from the sun. There’s good supporting work from Domhnall Gleeson, pulling off an American accent well.

Who would guess that things would get worse for the survivors when they end up in a Japanese POW camp.

About half way into this two hour movie is when you realize the big problem. It’s that the narrative pace never really changes. Someone should’ve told Jolie that sometimes less is more. We never really see any vulnerability with Zamperini. It’s just his resourcefulness, and a series of quotes you’d see on a high school gymnasium (“You can do it,” “You gotta take it, to make it,” “A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain,” “You just gotta believe!”).

It’s almost like Jolie saw Cool Hand Luke, and was so moved by the scene with George Kennedy beating Paul Newman to a pulp, and Newman continuing to get back up (despite people saying “Stay down.”). There were two or three scenes just like this. The older folks will also think about Bridge on the River Kwai and a few other pictures this seems to borrow from.

We also never really get more than one-dimensional characters. That’s especially frustrating when we have this sadomasochistic prison guard Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe (pop singer Miyavi). We are to assume he’s a repressed homosexual, but can’t be positive. All we really know about him is he looks feminine, likes to whisper into Zamperini’s ear, and…he’s constantly beating the tar out of him. Give us some character development!!!

Jolie also turned this into an epic picture, filmed in many locations (mostly Australia). It should’ve been a tighter film. For a movie this length, I’d rather have a biopic on Zamperini. Show us a little more of his early days (not just neighborhood bullies calling him “wop” and “dago”), and also a lot of his later years, in which he became a Christian and going to seek out all his captors (he initially wanted revenge).

Jack O’Connell is great in the role. He has to grimace, show emotion, and this will be his break-out role.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one that will think, “Didn’t they do that scene in Forrest Gump?” This comes in the early days of him running from the flat-foot cops, and going through a high school track during a practice. Coaches lift their head, surprised at how fast the young man can run. At least I’ll give Jolie credit for not showing him run in slow-motion, with a Chariots of Fire-esque score (we get a score from the very prolific Alexandre Desplat).

There are a number of times Jolie stated the obvious. I’m not sure why a flashback to a Priest saying “Love thy enemy” was necessary, or if that even applies in his situation. For example, the book mentions him wanting to extract a painful revenge on his captors.

I cry easy at movies, yet was surprisingly unmoved (until the closing credits, with real footage of Zamperini).

It’s a shame there wasn’t a more engaging movie on an Olympic and war hero.

This gets 2 stars out of 5.

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