June 13-19, 2002
WindtalkersDirected by John Woo An MGM release Opens Friday at area theaters
With Windtalkers, John Woo has done his damnedest not to make a John Woo movie. We’ll address the wisdom of this decision in a moment, but first, ponder what this means. At no point does any character fire more than one gun at a time. No flock of doves suddenly and symbolically takes flight, and there is not a single scene set in a chapel lit only by thousands of flickering candles. There is little, if any, slow-motion camerawork, nor a pair of adversaries on opposite sides of the law who turn out to have more in common than they initially might have thought.
Of course, artists expand their horizons all the time, or else become parodies of themselves (to which Woo has, indeed, come perilously close at times). But Woo is one of those directors whose obsession with his own themes, and the concrete ways of representing them on screen, is a large part of what makes him consistently fascinating. Complaining that Woo recycles images, or that he makes too many movies set in the same milieu, is like complaining that Hitchcock made too many movies about unfairly accused men, or David Cronenberg about sexual discomfort and biological abhorrence. Woo has frequently claimed, like Sam Peckinpah before him, to "hate violence," yet his sickened, scab-peeling fascination with it is what draws us in, the urge to look away, and the compulsion to keep watching.
The violence that interests Woo most in Windtalkers is not the spectacle of American troops taking on Japanese soldiers on the island of Saipan, though it provides the occasion for a handful of spectacular long-take shots that took days to choreograph. The dark potential at the movie's core is that of killing between friends. Though Windtalkers boasts the standard Bruckheimer-esque ensemble cast (Mark Ruffalo and Peter Stormare among them), the movie is essentially about two couples, each composed of a Navajo "code talker" and the soldier assigned to protect him -- or rather, to protect the code. Beginning in 1942, several hundred Navajo Americans were recruited as Marines and trained to use their native tongue as a kind of indecipherable code-speak. (Navajo was chosen in part because of the scarcity of native speakers and because the language relies often on subtle gradations of inflection that make it especially difficult to translate.) Woo often advances the action by using the voices of Navajo radio men as a kind of ghostly voiceover -- the disembodied words float through the air (and appear, of course, on the screen) as if they truly were plucked out of the wind.
Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) already has a host of problems, among them a punctured eardrum sustained in a firefight that took the lives of all the men under his command, when he's assigned to "baby-sit" Private Ben Yahzee (Smoke Signals' Adam Beach), who's just arrived from his reservation and is feeling none too welcome at base camp in Hawaii. Enders' situation only worsens when he's informed that his duty might extend to the responsibility to kill his fresh-faced charge rather than let the code fall into enemy hands. The same dilemma plagues the whey-faced Ox Henderson (Christian Slater) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie).
As the first movie about a hidden chapter of American history (or at least hitherto unfilmed, which apparently amounts to the same thing), Windtalkers is self-consciously Important at every turn, from James Horner's plodding, clumsily martial score to Woo's sudden leap into "documentary-style" filmmaking. The credits inform us that the movie is "based on true events," which seems to mean that, although the characters and situations are fabricated, they didn't make everything up. (The last movie to come with a similar tag was The Mothman Prophecies.) It seems to be that sense of occasion, along with his desire to make his Lawrence of Arabia, that's responsible for Woo making one of the most leaden and ponderous movies of his career. Woo's often forsaken the sensible for the lyrical, but Windtalkers' "true events" are like a lead weight tied to his ankles. When a director who's never shown any interest in realism starts dabbling, watch out -- there's colorless times ahead. At times, especially during the sequences where Enders recuperates in a Hawaiian military hospital, Windtalkers is almost shockingly reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. (It doesn't help that Frances O'Connor's G.I.-loving nurse is so reminiscent of Kate Beckinsale's.) The fact that Woo's taking lessons from Michael Bay, rather than the other way around, is cause for nothing short of lamentation.