*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Mark
The film opens with World War II air corps in a B-24 Liberator bomber in the Pacific Island. Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is a bombardier and he and his crew are engaged in a bombing mission against the Japanese. Many are injured but with their pilot, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), and Louie’ skill, they successfully land the plane even though it’s been shot hundreds of times.
Flashback to a young Louie, living in Torrance, California. He is a misfit, smoking cigarettes and drinking at 12 years old. The police escort him home after he is caught fighting his father is upset because it’s not the first time. We meet his family briefly a traditional Italian family now living in America.
At a baseball game, he is caught under the bleachers with cigarettes and alcohol and ends up running away to avoid trouble; this is how his older brother realizes he is a fast runner. He begins training him, which keeps him out of trouble. Years later, he becomes the fastest runner in his high school’s history and ends up going to the Olympics in 1936. At the Games, he starts a race in last place but manages to speed ahead to set an American world record.
In current day, the crew who flew on the shot down plane have been transferred to Hawaii to await reassignment. Louie impresses his fellow army men by continuing to train and beating the four-minute-mile. The men are sent on a mission to search for a lost aircraft and crew. They are given another B-24 but it is notorious as being defective. While on the search, mechanical difficulties cause the plane to crash into the ocean of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard. The only three to survive are Louie, Phil, and a man named Mac (Finn Wittrock) who make their way onto lifeboats.
The three struggle to survive, noting that they have limited rations (they can have one piece of chocolate in the morning and at night, only a few drops of water per day, etc.) On day two, an airplane flies overhead and they try to signal it with dye and a flare gun but they go unnoticed.
They continue to fight although Mac feels more and more hopeless eventually exhausting their supplies. Sharks begin to circle the boat and they learn to stay low.
On day nine, they clobber an albatross that has landed in their boat and try to eat it but quickly vomit it up. They then instead use the albatross as bait to attract fish and eat it raw. To keep their minds sharp, Louie tells them how they’re going to love his mom’s gnocchi and goes over the recipe.
On day 19, their situation has gotten bleaker. They are covered in bug bites and completely dehydrated. Phil and Louie talk about God Phil believes when it’s time to die, an angel will sit at the edge of his bed and tell him she has the answer to all his questions. Two days later, a treacherous storm causes huge 30-foot swells. Louie makes a deal with God that if he can survive, he will serve Him for the rest of his days. They all manage to hold on. They are all dehydrated; the next morning, Louie wakes up to find raindrops. The three of them happily fill up containers with fresh water and drink the drops from the sky.
Two days later, Louie pounces on a shark that is swimming by the boat. Louie stabs it in the eye with a screwdriver and they drag it on to the boat, feasting on its meat.
By day 33, the three have full beards and skeletal faces. Another plane flies above and they shoot their flare gun to attract attention. The plane circles around and all are in disbelief that they will finally be rescued after a harrowing 4 weeks. But then the plane begins firing at them. They all quickly jump into the water and hide from the bullets, kicking sharks away. They resurface back on the life raft but the firing continues. Louie dives back into the water but Mac and Phil huddle back on the boat. When Louie returns to them, he thinks they are dead but they have dodged all of the bullets by staying hunkered in the raft. The plane disappears and they patch up the holes so they can remain afloat.
On day 34, Louie and Phil talk about baseball to occupy their minds. Mac has taken a turn for the worst. He slowly dies.
On day 47, Phil and Louie awaken to both “good news” and “bad news.” The good news is a boat has discovered them; the bad news is it is the Japanese and they are now being held prisoner.
Louie and Phil are taken to a POW camp and kept in prison cells. A small bowl of rice is placed into the cell and he eats it up, hungrily. One morning, Louie is pulled out of the cell and dragged by his neck to a Japanese officer and a translator. He is asked what his troop is doing there and Louie says he doesn’t know. The officer recognizes him as an Olympic athlete. They ask if he is a bombardier. Louie asks about the Marines left behind at the island and is told they were beheaded.
Louie is placed back under his cell. He carves his name in the wall under others who had also been imprisoned there. A month goes by. Louie is dragged outside, alongside Phil. They are forced to strip. Both are scared they are going to be shot. Instead they are splashed with cold water and told to shave. They are transported to a prison with 40 other Marines.
The group is transferred in trucks to the streets of Tokyo and transferred to a POW camp in Tokyo Bay. They are welcomed by Corporal Mutsushiro Watanabe (Miyavi), nicknamed the Bird. He tells them they are enemies of Japan and will be treated accordingly. Louie glances at him briefly. The Bird goes over and orders Louie to look at him and then strikes him with a kendo stick. Louie stands up and he repeats this again, breaking Louie’s nose. He is told to stand up again and look at him and struck again. It isn’t until he tells Louie not to look at him that he leaves him alone. Louie has no choice but to endure the abuse. The Bird tells the group they will have to be quarantined to keep disease from spreading. He leaves.
Louis and others settle into the barracks. Other Marines tell him about the Bird, a name they’ve adopted for him because they can’t call him what they want to. They inform Louie that the Bird grew up spoiled by his father; he was not allowed to be an officer so he overcompensates in his current position hence his sadistic nature.
One day, the Bird says they have some renowned people in their midst and has an opera singer identify himself and then asks who is the Olympic athlete amongst them. Louie reluctantly identifies himself and is forced to run against a young Japanese boy. Because he is fatigued from lack of food, he collapses on the ground; the Bird says he is not so tough and beats him.
The prisoners are forced to do calisthenics out in the cold. The Bird walks around, noting the talent in their camp he asks an opera singer to identify himself, then a cook, then the Olympic athlete. He already knows who that is and Louie acknowledges it was him. The Bird orchestrates a race between Louie and a young Japanese guard. Louie is frail and sick and can’t keep up so the Japanese runner wins. The Bird tells him, “You fail. You are nothing.” He cracks his face with the stick again.
The prisoners follow the war via newspapers that are stolen from the Japanese; one marine draws a map to keep track of American’s positions. Louie notices one prisoner who has some of his fingernails removed and he says that he was tortured for information they all agree not to help the enemy, despite what they are put through
The prisoners are subjected to hard manual labor including cleaning out the latrines (one man notices that for guys who don’t eat, they sure do shit a lot). They pass the Bird and the guards and Louie smiles at them. They get to the ocean and dump their excrement.
The barracks are searched through and the Bird discovers the map. One soldier is beaten while Louie stands by, helpless. Later, he says he wants to kill The Bird but is told he’ll be shot if he tries. He is told that they only beat The Bird if they make it to the end of the war alive.
The POWs are awoken in the middle of the night by the Bird and guards. Louie hides in the back since The Bird has taken special notice of him. But The Bird walks to him and then beats him for not being in place. He asks Louie, “Why do you make me hit you?”
One morning, a man tells Louie that it is reported that the famous Olympic runner Zamperini is dead. They ask if he wants to go on the radio to tell his family that he is still alive. He agrees and is driven to the radio station. He tells his family that he is uninjured and in good health, being treated as well as can be expected. The Zamperinis listen to the broadcast at home.
Louie is eating in a cafeteria and is asked to make another announcement where he speaks ill of America. In exchange, he’ll get to be a Japanese citizen and stay out of the POW camp. But he refuses to betray his country. He is taken back to the barracks. Everyone is gathered outside. The Bird ties Louie’s hands behind his back and tells him, “You are like me. We are both strong. I saw it in your eyes, the first day. I thought, this man will be my friend. But enemy of Japan, you do not listen. You do not do what is asked of you.” He tells the others Louie must be taught respect then orders all 200+ men to punch him. One of his friends refuses. In response, The Bird begins to beat another one of his friends. Now Louie encourages the first man to hit him. One by one, Louie is punched, knocked over, and gets back up to take another blow. It goes on for hours. His cheek is split open, he is gushing blood, and cannot open his eyes at the end.
Months go by. During an outdoor production of Cinderella, with the prisoners playing all the roles, the Bird sits next to Louie and tells him he is being promoted and transferred to another camp. He tells Louie that this is unfortunate news because now he has to say goodbye to all his friends. He prompts Louie to congratulate him on the promotion but Louie stays silent.
The Bird is transferred and life at camp gets immensely better. But then fighter planes fly overhead. But the group is concerned if the Allies win, the Japanese issued kill-all orders. If they win, they’re dead. Bombs explode all around them. The next morning, the group is transferred to a new camp past the ruins created by the bombs.
The prisoners get to a new camp. They are all gathered into the compound and the commander is called it is The Bird. Louie passes out at the sight. The Bird tells them they will all be working on the coal barges and anyone who doesn’t help out will be executed. The Bird asks Louie why he can’t look him in the eye. He strikes him.
The group settles into their barracks. An Australian POW tells them no one knows they are there and that this is the end.
Everyone works hard to move the heavy coal into railroad cars. They are placed onto baskets strapped to the backs of POWs. They then have to climb narrow stairs, five stories high; the coal is so heavy that one man collapses, falling off the staircase to the death. Everyone has to continue as if nothing happened.
One day, while they work, the prisoners are informed that President Roosevelt has died. One man breaks down in tears but the rest don’t respond.
Weeks go by and the men continue working at the coal barge in the intense heat. Louie tears his leg, damaging it permanently along with his Olympic dreams. He is now weakened and beaten down.
One day, the men are working and The Bird notices Louis resting his leg. He tells him to stand up and pick up a six-foot wood plank off the ground. He is told to hold it over his head. Louis struggles but manages to follow orders. The Bird tells the guards that if Louie lowers the plank, they should shoot him; he then walks away and observes from a distance. Louie sweats but continues to hold the beam over his head. Minutes go by and everyone is now watching. Louie holds steady, despite being weak.
It has now been 25 minutes of Louie holding the wood plank over his head. The Bird is upset. More minutes pass. The Bird is now angry. He punches Louie in the stomach, then beats him with his kendo stick. Louie endures all the abuse. The sun has set. The prisoners are told to return to the barracks.
One day, the prisoners are told by the guards that the war has reached a point of cessation and in the spirit of the new future for their great nations, the men are invited to bathe in the river. The group is ushered to the water by armed guards holding rifles. The men are sure they are going to be killed. They get to the river and begins to wade in the water as the men surround them with guns pointed. But then everything is interrupted as an American bomber plane flies overhead and in Morse code tells them that the war is over. All the POWs cheer.
Packages are dropped from the sky with food and supplies. Back at the camp, Louie enters the Bird’s office. He sees a photo of the Bird as a young boy with his Military leader father. The kendo stick is against the wall but the Bird has disappeared.
Louie is flown home to his family in California and embraced by them. This is juxtaposed with a real life photo of the scene. End credits tells us Louis has a wife and family and remained friendly with Phil long after the war. The Bird remained hidden for several years a war criminal but the U.S. eventually granted amnesty in its efforts to reconcile with Japan. Louie made good on his promise to serve God which he says turned his life around and convinced him to forgive. He returned to Japan and met with all the men who wronged him only the Bird refused to meet. Louie also returned to the Olympics, in 1998, to carry a torch… when the games are held in Japan. A memorial card reveals he passed away in 2014 (three months prior to the film’s release).