Angelina Jolie UnbrokenEXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures and Walden Media are in final negotiations with Angelina Jolie to direct Unbroken, the unbelievable story of Olympian-turned-WWII POW Louis Zamperini. The project, which Universal has developed for going on 55 years, is closer than ever to becoming a reality. Matthew Baer and Erwin Stoff are producing and Mick Garris is exec producer.

For Jolie, this will mark her second film as director after she made her debut on In The Land Of Blood And Honey. This will be her first directing outing on a major studio film. It’s easy to imagine that the world’s biggest female star gets whatever she wants, but I’m told that she campaigned hard for the film against a number of other directors. Universal execs were very impressed with her sophisticated treatment of difficult subject matter. Her detailed take on Zamperini won her this job.

“In her life and in her work, Angelina has embraced stories and causes involving great struggle and triumph over tremendous odds and the basic human condition,” Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley said in a statement. “She has a real ability to illustrate the strength in human spirit which will be essential in telling Lou’s story of survival and great heroism.”

The film has a new script draft by Gladiator and Les Miserables co-writer William Nicholson, who rewrote an earlier draft by Richard LaGravanese. The script is based on Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, the book by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for over 108 straight weeks.

“I read Laura Hillenbrand’s brilliant book, and I was so moved by Louie Zamperini’s heroic story, I immediately began to fight for the opportunity to make this film,” Jolie said. “Louie is a true hero and a man of immense humanity, faith and courage. I am deeply honored to have the chance to tell his inspiring story.”

For my part, I have been obsessed with Zamperini since I saw a segment on his ordeal broadcast during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Zamperini was there to run with the Olympic torch, covering ground not far from where he spent an unimaginably brutal stretch in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. That is only a small part of Zamperini’s tale.

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A troubled and rambunctious Depression era kid, Zamperini found his stride as a track prodigy who was the youngest member of the U.S. team that traveled to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. He didn’t medal, but turned in such a blazing final lap that Hitler asked to meet him. The expectation was that Zamperini would be a favorite to win a medal in the 1940 Olympics scheduled for Tokyo. Unfortunately, those games were canceled because of WWII. When Zamperini landed in Japan, he was wearing the uniform of an Air Force bombardier.

After his aircraft went down in the Pacific during a rescue mission, Zamperini and two other crew mates survived on a raft in the hot sun for 47 days, battling hunger, thirst and sharks. It got worse when they were caught by the Japanese Navy. That started a terrifying term of captivity at the hands of brutal Japanese guards who threatened to behead Zamperini, and who beat him brutally. One sadistic guard in particular exulted in trying to break Zamperini, but he could never do it. And by the time Zamperini returned to Japan and carried that torch, he’d forgiven his brutal captor–known as The Bird–and even offered to meet him to forgive him in person. The man refused.

The studio first bought Zamperini’s rights back in the 1950s, when Tony Curtis was eager to play Zamperini as his followup to Spartacus. Few movies gestate as long as this one, but it’s clear from Hillenbrand’s remarkable book that it was wise to wait. Zamperini had a lot of work to do to make himself whole again after enduring an ordeal that would break even the strongest of men. The unsung hero in the formation of this movie is Baer, the producer who has been struggling for 14 years to keep a promise to Zamperini. The project gained steam after Hillenbrand’s book was published and gave Zamperini’s story new urgency.

Jolie will oversee a final draft and then there is casting and a tough production schedule, but this movie should find its way into production next year. It’s co-financed by Universal and Walden, whose CEO Michael Bostick called Zamperini “one of history’s most incredible and inspiring stories.”

Zamperini turns 96 in January, and with the passion that Jolie and Universal now have for this story, he should have the opportunity to be part of its production and hopefully to see Unbroken on the screen. Jolie’s repped by UTA for directing and attorney Robert Offer.