Director: John Woo
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Roger Willie, Frances O'Connor
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive graphic war violence, and for language)
Running Time: 2:14
Release Date: 6/14/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
John Woo is a master of the now clichéd concept of "violence as ballet." To watch a shootout in a Woo film is to see all the tricks pulled out as countless bad guys are mowed down in a hail of bullets without a care in the world. The hero always has an occupation or finds himself in a situation where the killing of many people is a necessity. In his best films, the hero is strongly religious or spiritual and finds himself in an internal, ethical conflict after years of reckless bloodshed. For his newest effort Windtalkers, the director is given all of these qualities but has the misfortune of having them attributed to a war movie. On top of this, the movie is about a hitherto untold story of Navajo code-talkers who were a vital part of the US victory in the Pacific during World War II. For its setup alone, the movie is important, but it eventually undermines its purpose by becoming a movie about the code-protectors and not the code-talkers.
During the war with Japan, the US military devised a code based on the language of the Navajo. The language is so complex that the code was never broken. As a result, the military held the code in the utmost importance, even to the degree of considering the code-talker disposable if a situation arose in which the code-talker risked capture. To assure their success, the military assigned the code-talkers men like Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), who personally underwent a harrowing experience in which all of the men under his command were killed. Because of his exemplary military record, the Marines assign him to follow Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), who left his wife and son his home on a reservation in Arizona to become a code-talker. The mission is to capture the island of Saipan, and it will take all the capabilities of the newfound code to accomplish the mission.
Once on the island, the movie takes on a frantic pace that only lets up for relatively brief intervals. For a majority of its runtime, Windtalkers portrays the firefights and strategic advancing the soldiers encounter and initiate. Woo gives the sense of chaotic, frenzied combat but also manages to lessen the impact of the brutality of war by relying on tried-and-true action conventions. Instead of following in the vein of the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan, the movie’s battle sequences use the same approach of the middle half hour of Pearl Harbor. The battles feel far too choreographed as the camera repeatedly cuts to different areas of the battlefield to show us a stuntman or two fall down or fly in the air because of an explosion or gunshot. Pyrotechnics are used extensively, as is also common in Woo’s action movies, but they only add up to technical frills and give no sense of reality. All the while, James Horner’s most overbearing score since The Perfect Storm blares in the backdrop, making sure we understand how heroic the characters are and how grand the battle is. Perhaps this is simply the result of war films that have captured the bloody mess that is war, but these scenes look and feel like hollow, if not technically proficient, action sequences.
As is the case with most war films that focus on combat, the storytelling here is lacking true character development, a flaw easily forgivable if a thematic sense of purpose is given to the characters. Here the most obvious element that would give such a sense is the true-life story of the Navajo code-talkers. The problem with the script by John Rice and Joe Batteer is that we only have two points of reference in regards to the tale—Yahzee and a Private Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie). Both actors do a fine job of making sympathetic subjects (particularly Adam Beach, whose slow descent into apathy and violence is the movie’s high point), but the screenplay is convinced that the audience needs to focus on the white soldiers. Small scenes give us general character qualities—for example, one is afraid his wife will cheat on him while he’s away, one is a racist, etc.—but the Navajos are deprived of storytelling time as a result. Eventually the plot centers on Cage’s character as he faces the ethical dilemma of possibly having the responsibility of killing one of his own troops. As well as this is handled and as fascinating a moral quandary it raises, it’s still missing the point.
The point, of course, is that the Navajo (who also in a way represent all minorities whose stories have been ignored) were an important and unsung part of history. After seeing Windtalkers, I am left with the overall impression that their story still needs to be told. As a war movie, Windtalkers is just an actioneer in disguise. As a telling of history, it lets us know that the real heroes of the Navajo code-talking chapter of WWII were the men who were able to overcome their intolerance towards a people that had been oppressed for years and willingly protected them from themselves and the Japanese in combat. Some history lesson.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.