In Torrance, California in the early 1930s, a young boy named Louis “Louie” Zamperini spends his childhood stealing, pulling pranks, and getting into fights. Seeing Louie heading down the wrong path, his older brother Pete helps focus Louie’s unrestrained energies into running track. Soon, Louie cleans up his act and becomes the fastest high school runner in recorded American history. After graduating high school, Louie wins an invitation to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At the Games, Louie doesn’t win a medal but he does set a world record for the fastest last lap of an Olympic race.
As Louie trains for the next Olympic Games, the world descends into war. With the Olympic Games cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II, Louie enlists in the Air Force. After military training, Louie becomes a bombardier and receives orders to report to a military base in the Pacific. In 1941, Louie and the crew of the bomber, Super Man, engage in successful bombing runs of Japanese military targets. But after Japanese planes nearly destroy Super Man during an air battle, Louie and his best friend Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips get reassigned to a new plane and crew.
On a routine mission, their new plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean and only Louie, Phil, and their new crewmate Francis “Mac” McNamara survive. On board an inflatable life-raft, the men have few rations, little water, and no protection from the hot sun or the sharks that constantly encircle them. The men collect rainwater, catch birds to use the meat for fishing, and even kill and eat a couple of sharks. But it’s not enough and Mac dies from malnourishment. After forty-seven days adrift on the raft, Louie and Phil fall into the hands of a passing Japanese military ship.
The Japanese bring Louie and Phil to a military base called “Execution Island” where they put them in small cages, give them almost no food, and inject them with experimental chemicals. Instead of executing them, the Japanese send Louie and Phil to separate labor camps in Japan. At the Omori camp, one of the head guards, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, singles out Louie for emotional and physical torture. The Bird feels powerful abusing the prisoners and thinks that if he can break the spirit of a famous Olympian like Louie, then he can feel even more power.
At one point, Japanese propagandists give Louie the opportunity to send his family a message over the radio. The U.S. army had mistakenly announced Louie’s death, but his family never lost hope that Louie was still alive. The Japanese broadcast Louie’s message throughout the U.S. and his family gets their first real indication that he’s alive. The propagandists tell Louie that he can leave the camp and live in a nice hotel if he agrees to read propaganda for them on the radio. Louie refuses and they send him back to the prison camp.
Soon after, the Bird transfers to another camp, but he brings Louie along with him so that he can continue the abuse. At this camp, Louie hauls tons of coal on his back all day. When a guard pushes him, Louie slips and breaks his leg. Since he can no longer work, the Bird makes him clean out the pig sty with his hands. This humiliation almost breaks Louie’s spirit for good, but he is just able to hold on.
After over two years of humiliating and torturing the prisoners, the Japanese suddenly announce that the war is over. As U.S. bombers deliver food and clothing to the prisoners, Louie, emaciated and exhausted, finally feels free. Days before the war had ended, the Bird learned about the impending Japanese surrender and fled the camp, fearing that the Allies would try him as a war criminal. After regaining some of his strength at a U.S. military hospital, Louie flies back home where he meets his overjoyed family.
Recuperating from the war in Miami, Louie falls in love with a beautiful and fiercely independent woman named Cynthia Applewhite. After only two weeks, Cynthia accepts Louie’s marriage proposal and, a few months later, they marry in a church outside Torrance. The military sends Louie around the country to give speeches about his experiences in the war but, plagued by his memories of torture, Louie begins to drink heavily. His marriage starts to fall apart and Louie develops a severe mental illness called PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) that is common with military veterans.
After years of spiraling mental illness and alcoholism, as well as Louie’s abusive behavior toward his wife and children, Cynthia brings Louie to a Christian revival meeting where he comes to believe that a benevolent and compassionate God had been watching over him during the war. Louie finds redemption in the Christian faith, quits drinking, and overcomes the PTSD. His marriage rebounds and he lives out the rest of his life in peace by helping others in the service of God.