But the movie compares in a good way to Oscar-winners “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Deerhunter” or more recent “Life of Pi”— and while our fair hero suffers much torment at the hands of his nemesis, a Japanese prison commander named “The Bird,” well-played by Japanese rock star and rookie actor Miyavi with poise and malevolent charm, the movie is not too hard to take. That’s because O’Connell embodies the tenacious spirit of Zamperini, who did get to see the film at the hospital on Jolie’s laptop before he died this July at age 97.
Following “Unbroken”’s rousing Australian premiere, director Jolie is back in Los Angeles, having finished filming her third feature “By the Sea” with new husband Brad Pitt on their honeymoon, and now hitting the ground for awards season. Jolie attended the first L.A. screening of “Unbroken” at the WGA Sunday night, followed by a Q & A with breakout Brit actor O’Connell (“Starred Up,” “’71”), Miyavi, who is better at handling the media than awkward O’Connell, cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is the real star behind this gorgeous movie, and producer Matt Baer, who has been developing this film, much of the time at Universal, for 16 years.
Read: Famed Cinematographer Roger Deakins Talks Coens, Storytelling, ‘Prisoners’ here.
It was when “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillebrand turned Zamperini’s story into a bestseller that the project took off and Jolie got interested, she said. Several writers turned in drafts, including Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, before the Coen brothers did the final polish.
The script is smart and solid, and the movie hums along at a good clip, starting in the clouds above Japan as a B24 team of pilots, gunners and bombardier Zamperini reveal just how scary-dangerous those flying missions were, as they successfully drop a load of bombs on their target but get hit with incoming fire and barely get back to base in one piece. Their next time out, they crash land in the water and three men manage to survive for an amazing length of time on two rafts in the open ocean, circled by sharks–this is the “Life of Pi” section–before being rescued.
The next phase of the story involves the horrors of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The movie also flashes back to Zamperini’s miscreant youth and rehabilitation as a remarkable sprinter –the Torrance Tornado–who raced in the 1936 Olympics. The Japanese actually clean him up and put him on the radio as a PR stunt, as he movingly wishes his listening family a Merry Christmas.
The film is comparable in its straightforward dramatic sincerity to Ava DuVernay’s smaller-scale “Selma,” which scooped up five Indie Spirit nominations including best feature, director and actor last week. Jolie’s husband Pitt is a producer on “Selma,” which is picking up Oscar steam. It’s worth noting that if “Selma” and “Unbroken” get Best Picture nominations, and both get credit from the Producers’ Branch as producers (“Selma” boasts six, while “Unbroken” has four), Pitt and Jolie might be the first married couple ever to compete against each other. It’s rare in any category, because so few women are nominated. If Pitt makes the cut as producer, it would mark back-to-back Best picture nominations for him and Plan B’s Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner. If “Selma” won, that would be a first sequential producer win.
“Unbroken” won’t open in Australia, where the entire film was shot in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, until January 15, several weeks after the US release on December 25.