New York, NY -- You name it, Louis “Louie” Zamperini went through it. After living through the Great Depression, this World War Two hero survived a plane crash, drifted on a life raft for 47 days, suffered at the hands of cruel Japanese guards in POW camps, all the while battling starvation, dysentery, and other physical ailments. His never ending ordeal lasted more than two years. Miraculously, he lived to tell about it. His story is captivatingly depicted in Laura Hillenbrand’s New York Times bestseller "Unbroken," which hit book shelves in 2010. I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this the perfect plot for a feature film? Well, it seemed to be well on its way to becoming one in 1957, when Universal bought the rights to Zamperini’s story. Just like Zamperini’s amazing survival, however, it took years of endurance for this project to finally see a green light. For a long time, his tale had been tossed around by different directorial hands, with no one willing to commit.
In came Angelina Jolie.
At an “Unbroken” press conference in New York on Friday, Jolie explained why she felt so passionately about directing this movie.
“I was halfway through this book and I found myself inspired and feeling better and being reminded of the strength of the human spirit. And the strength of having a brother like Pete and to be that for each other. And I realized, if this is having this effect on me, I knew it had affected so many other people and it was what we needed to put forward to the world at this time. And I’m glad it’s coming out at the holidays, it’s a very important time.”
Zamperini’s daughter, Cynthia Garris, told Townhall why Jolie was the perfect person to bring her dad’s almost unbelievable experience to the silver screen. Although Garris was hesitant at first to put her dad’s story in the hands of a movie star, she said the film’s producer, Matt Baer, put her at ease.
“Matt said, ‘I haven’t spoken to one other director who had the vision that she has. She is brilliant beyond words and her passion.’ So, his being convinced, since he had been on the film for so many years, trying so hard to get it done, he convinced me.”
Finn Wittrock, who portrays Francis “Mac” McNamara, Louie’s fellow airmen who survived the plane but died after a few weeks of languishing in the life raft, explained why he and the cast felt a responsibility to do the story justice.
“He could be any of our grandfathers and I think we all felt a responsibility and that we did service to a story that is bigger than any of us. So, we had to remind ourselves when we were in the trenches, and have four blueberries for breakfast, you push yourself because you want the story to be told.”
The cast certainly took their jobs seriously, keeping to a strict 800-calorie a day diet so they could accurately reflect the emaciated bodies of these POW prisoners. Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, said his costar Domnhall Gleason (Phil) lost so much weight that he dropped a contact lens size.
Jolie’s commitment to the film is emphasized with details like these that she insisted on getting right. In addition to the cast’s weight, Jolie even ensured that the track outfits in the film were the same colors of Zamperini’s 1935 high school track team.
After the 57-year-long wait for a film that needed to be made, Jolie hopes she captures the spirit of Louie Zamperini.
“I want my children to know about men like Louie. When they feel bad about themselves and they think all is lost, they know they’ve got something inside of them. You don’t have to be a perfect person or a saint or a hero – Louie was very flawed, very human – but made great choices and again, was a great man.”
An uplifting side note: I asked Jolie after the presser if Zamperini had seen any rough cuts of the film before he died, and she said he saw the whole thing.
“Unbroken” opens nationwide on Christmas Day. Keep an eye out Tuesday for my full interview with Mrs. Garris as she shares more insight into her dad’s amazing story.