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Angelina Jolie poses with 'Unbroken's true star, Louie Zamperini

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Universal Pictures

Hollywood has been trying to bring Louie Zamperini’s amazing true story to the screen for more than 50 years. At one point in the 1960s, Universal had Tony Curtis lined up to play the one-time Olympic runner and heroic World War II airman who was shot down over the Pacific and somehow survived sharks, starvation, and a brutal Japanese POW camp.

Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling 2010 book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, revitalized interest in a movie about him, and Angelina Jolie landed the project as her next directorial effort. Zamperini was a champion distance runner who competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He enlisted in the Army Air Force before Pearl Harbor and was flying missions in the Pacific when his plane crashed in 1942, killing eight of the 11 men aboard. The three survivors floated for days on a life raft, and two of them eventually were captured by the Japanese, who imprisoned them until the end of the war. After the war, Zamperini became a Christian inspirational speaker who met and forgave many of the Japanese guards who had abused him during his incarceration.

Now 96, Zamperini has become close friends with Jolie, his neighbor in the Hollywood Hills. “It will be hard to make a film worthy of this great man,” says Jolie, in a statement. “I am deeply honored to have the chance and will do all I can to bring Louie’s inspiring story to life. … Like all readers of Laura’s book and all people who love and admire Louie, I am a fan who has learned so much. He has made me a better person.”

Click below to watch Zamperini’s 2012 appearance on the Tonight Show.

Unbroken, which stars British actor Jack O’Connell (Skins) as Zamperini, will open in theaters on Dec. 25, 2014.