Young Louie Zamperini is the troublemaker of Torrance, California, stealing food, running like hell, and dreaming of hopping on a train and leaving town for good. His beloved older brother, Pete, manages to turn his life around, though, translating Louie's love of running from the law into a passion for track and field. Louie breaks high school records, goes to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, and trains to beat the four-minute-mile.
His running career is put on hold when the Second World War breaks out. Louie enlists in the army air corps and becomes a bombardier. He and his crew, including pilot "Phil" Phillips, have a harrowing air battle in their plane, the Super Man. But Phil's pilot skills and Louie's ingenuity enables them to land the plane, even though it's riddled with over five hundred bullet holes.
With the Super Man succumbed to its kryptonite, the men are transferred to the Green Hornet—a less-reliable plane, the Hornet is shot down over the Pacific. Only three men survive: Louie, Phil, and Mac. Phil wrestles with his guilt about crashing, Mac kind of goes nuts, and Louie wrestles a shark from the ocean with his bare hands and eats its liver. (We are not making that up.) Unfortunately, Mac dies at sea.
Louie and Phil survive for forty-six days, but only to be captured by the Japanese and holed away in a terrible POW camp. The men are shuffled from camp to camp, each one almost worse than the last, until the war ends. Louie survives, despite being pursued by a sadistic guard nicknamed the Bird, punched over two hundred times, and forced to clean a pigsty with his bare hands.
Back home, Louie reunites with his family and marries his love-at-first-sight: Cynthia. They have a daughter and, well, a drinking problem. Louie is haunted by the horrors of war and turns to alcohol to forget. He is directionless, unable to run or find a new career; he dreams of going to Japan and killing the Bird. The newlyweds' life reaches a low point when Cynthia catches Louie shaking the baby. She files for divorce.
Cynthia changes her mind when Billy Graham (yes, the Billy Graham) comes to town. She manages to convince Louie to attend one of his tent preaching sessions. Louie remembers a bargain he made with God while on the raft, and the relative peace he felt that day at sea. Finding faith enables him to quit drinking and become a motivational speaker.
Years later, Louie forgives all the men who wronged him during the war. When it turns out that the Bird is still alive, Louie hopes to meet the man and forgive him in person—the Bird refuses, but Louie sends him a letter. In 1998, Louie carries the Olympic torch past Naoetsu, where he was once imprisoned, and he puts his dark past behind him.