There’s a wonderful movie yet to be made about the Native American code-talkers of World War II, a group of Navajo Indians recruited to encode and decode military communications for the U.S. military in the Pacific theater. John Woo‘s Windtalkers, a string of incrementally orgiastic battle scenes glued together with enough sap to make Steven Spielberg look like a cynic, exhausts most of its narrative and visual possibilities in two opening scenes. Ben Yahzee, a Navajo trainee code-talker played by Adam (Smoke Signals) Beach, bids a sun-soaked Hallmark goodbye to his wife while sighing over his baby son. Cut to U.S. Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), taking on handfuls of Japanese with a mad-dog glitter in his eye, as his comrades die all around him. In real life, the code-talkers were assigned Marine guards for their protection — an excellent excuse for a buddy movie — but the guards also had orders to protect the code ”at all costs.“ And while no order was ever actually given to kill a code-talker who had fallen into enemy hands, that hasn’t stopped screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer from framing the execution of the command as a central dilemma in a story in which, so far from being the main event, the Native American is a serene helper in the spiritual renewal of a white man.
From the moment Enders tells his superior officer that he‘s supposed to be ”killing Japs, not baby-sitting some Indian,“ we know there’s a serious outbreak of male bonding waiting in the wings of the preliminary hostilities. Just which way the wind of moral support is going to blow also becomes crystal clear when code-talker Yahzee offers his reluctant bodyguard a Lifesaver. Windtalkers is stuffed with flagrantly prefigurative moments of this sort, but even if it weren‘t, the movie’s structure is so crudely imitative of Saving Private Ryan, there‘s not much for an audience to do but lay odds on which members of Yahzee and Enders’ diligently multiethnic reconnaissance squad, which has been sent ahead to relay information about Japanese movements in the battle of Saipan, will be picked off and in what order. For all the latitude that the script allows them to develop into flesh and blood, the characters may as well be wearing placards around their necks marked Terrified Novice a (Martin Henderson), Street-Smart Greek-American Protector of Terrified Novice (Mark Ruffalo), Surfer Boy (Brian Van Holt), Racist Cracker Ripe for Enlightenment (Noah Emmerich), Instinctively Egalitarian Salt of the Earth (Christian Slater) and so forth.
Poor Yahzee is a victim not only of the casually explicit racism of 1940s America, but also of present-day Hollywood‘s reflexively liberal urge to patronize minorities by painting them as Rousseauian innocents; the more we’ve wronged them in life, the more flawless and goodhearted they grow in the movies. Yahzee is a man sustained by faith, ritual and community, and it‘s he who attempts to soothe the snarl off Enders’ lips, the anguish from his eyes, and restore his faith. It‘s an uphill struggle, for Enders, despite brief moments of tender ministry from the obligatory scarlet-lipped nurse (Frances O’Connor), is physically and emotionally unfit for combat — his balance is off, and not just because of a perforated eardrum: He wants revenge more than he wants victory, which hasn‘t escaped the notice of his unflappable, peace-loving charge. Still, off they roar into an accelerating crescendo of whoop-de-do but standard war-movie battle sequences that’s completely lacking in the choreographed grace we‘ve come to expect from Woo’s work. The Hong Kong director is a magnificent stylist, but he hasn‘t shown himself able to carry a strong story since he moved to Hollywood — even the coolly efficient FaceOff, which made buckets of money, was no more than an exquisitely realized arrangement of set pieces. Windtalkers is a warmer and more committed film by far, and one that embodies Woo’s abiding obsession with loyalty and religious faith. For a fleeting moment the movie poses the interesting question of whether war turns men into emotional cripples or heroes — then drowns it in a sea of schmaltz. In the studied excess of his Hong Kong action movies, Woo‘s swooning sentimentality plays like grand opera. With its dogged Hollywood naturalism and the inexorable passage of its characters toward sainthood, Windtalkers is nothing but a sticky-sweet soap.
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