Ideally, when navigating uncharted waters, there’s a team of experts guiding your every move. Otherwise, a seemingly routine mission can spiral out of control and set in motion a life-changing sequence of events. That’s what happened to Louis Zamperini during a rescue effort off the Pacific Coast in the Second World War. It could also have happened to second-time director Angelina Jolie, but she was smart (and lucky) enough to surround herself with some of the best in the business. People like you, Sean, who were looking out for her safety. And for the safety of the film.
Wise choice. And while you’re at it, why not bring in the Coen Brothers to write your script? And Roger Deakins to shoot your film? And William Goldenberg to edit it? That’s more than just “the safe thing to do”—in this case, it helped save the film.
Zamperini was an unlikely hero before he went to war. As the child of non-English speaking Italian immigrants, he scrapped his way through small town bigotry before representing the United States as a long-distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His incredible finish in the 5,000 meter race won him worldwide attention—and even a personal meeting with Adolf Hitler (though that scene is omitted from the film; Jolie must have decided it was safer to not have her hero seen shaking hands with the world’s vilest villain).
From the opening aerial shots – filmed with Deakins’ trademark confidence and perspective realism – we immediately get a sense of the scale and import of the story. The dialogue is sparse, never cute, and dials back much of the bravado that might have crept in (think Lone Survivor). Jolie herself has said that she would have never been drawn to that type of macho storytelling.
Shark attacks, on the other hand? Well, she dove right in.
In fact, the film is at its best during the lost-at-sea storyline. The danger is more desperate and lonely, and there’s a cosmic cruelty that is detached from any political commentary. As a result, it amplifies every injustice suffered in the latter half of the film.
The irony, of course, might be that this is a very safe film for mainstream audiences to enjoy over the Christmas break. But, hey, the words “safe” and “cinema” are allowed to go together sometimes, right?