‘Unbroken’: Can Louis Zamperini’s grueling story overcome stronger Oscar competition?

BEVERLY HILLS – Even though there are films like Ridley Scott's “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and Sony's remake of the musical “Annie” still to be screened widely this season, most industry eyes have been on “Unbroken” as the last potential Oscar player to unveil. But the roll-out has left a few anxious sorts, well, anxious.

Universal hasn't done anything so uncommon as to break out the tin foil hats, however. There was a Sydney premiere held as a show of appreciation to the country that hosted the entire production two weeks ago and thoughts out of that screening were embargoed. Long lead and cover story writers have seen it. There is a desire to have the talent on hand when the film screens, and with director Angelina Jolie taking on back-to-back projects in the thick of the season, hands have been sort of tied. But this is all basically what the studio did with “Les Misérables” two years ago. It's not a unique playbook.

All of that inside baseball aside, the film screened twice Sunday afternoon to guild and press members (those who braved the rain, that is) at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills, events that have been planned for over a month (initial invites went out on Oct. 24). And indeed, Jolie was on hand with some of her cast and crew to discuss the adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's book, which tells the story of Olympic track star and World War II prisoner-of-war survivor Louis Zamperini. Zamperini passed away in July at the age of 97.

“It wasn't about heroics and this giant adventure,” Jolie said of her attraction to the material during the post-screening Q&A. “It was about what he came to discover in his life…This is what Louie gave us. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.”

Up-and-comer Jack O'Connell was tapped to play Zamperini in the film. “I had the opportunity to meet the man three times, which was an honor and still is,” he said. To achieve the emaciation of the character during the POW sequences, he held to something like 800 calories per day. But then there was a tight turnaround – nine days – to bulk up a little bit more for the Olympic running sequences, which were shot at the end of the production. “Christmas helped with that,” he joked about putting back on the pounds.

For the role of Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, the punishing sergeant who oversaw Zamperini's POW camp, Jolie went after an unknown – at least in terms of acting. Ishihara Takamasa may be a huge pop star in Japan (where he's better known by his stage name Miyavi), but he didn't even begin learning English until eight years ago, let alone set his sights on starring in a Hollywood movie.

“To be honest, I was scared,” he said. “The story is controversial and the book is not even translated in Japan. But after I met with Angie I was confident this was meaningful and could create a bridge between Japan and America and deliver the message of forgiveness.”

Nevertheless, while there was certainly a lot of talk about it during the Q&A, I'm not sure that message is actually in the movie – beyond a few title cards at the end, that is. The film is an arduous experience, focusing on the turmoil of the POW camp without much in the way of structure or even a significant character arc for Zamperini. There is a nominal introduction to him in the early scenes as the son of Italian immigrant parents in Torrance, Calif., picked on by neighborhood boys, finding his way to a passion for track running, etc. But we don't really get to know him. The way the material was handled, I was honestly left wondering if Zamperini's admittedly amazing tale is even a movie at all. Not all stories are.

But the wait is over, and “Unbroken” has finally come out to play this season. Is it the big Oscar juggernaut it has been primed to be since Jolie brought Zamperini with her to the 2013 Governors Awards? I'm not so sure. The audience seemed to respond. Evocative photography (Roger Deakins, natch), great sound in some early scenes, a strong performance by O'Connell, a curiosity in Miyavi – you can skip a stone across highwater marks for the film that make for interesting elements, but contenders like “Boyhood,” “The Imitation Game” and “Selma” strike me as far more formidable at this point.

Then again, who knows? The film is very much in the usual Academy wheelhouse and it will have a big prestige push over the next couple of months. It's hard not to be taken with Zamperini's story, and that can do wonders for looking past flaws in translating it to the screen.

“Unbroken” hits theaters Christmas Day.