Intelligence has become a theme, though not an attribute, of current popular culture. The colossal failure of the FBI, CIA, and other investigative agencies to avert attack concentrates the mind on the importance of gathering and applying covert information. Spooks lurk on prime-time TV, and a recent feature film, Enigma, makes romantic drama out of the wartime race to crack German encryption. While British wit eventually succeeded in deciphering Enigma, the Japanese never managed to break an American code that was based on Navajo.
Windtalkers works through miscommunication. Its title suggests a script about the Navajos who used their peculiar tongue to ensure American victory in the Pacific. In fact, it focuses on only two "windtalkers" in what is otherwise a conventional, if unusually gory, war movie. Navajos Ben Yahzee (Beach) and Charles Whitehorse (Willie) are recruited by the Marines for combat duty as radio operators. In 1944, they participate in the bloody mission to wrest control of the island of Saipan from about 30,000 Japanese soldiers. Two Marine sergeants, Joe Enders (Cage) and Peter "Ox" Henderson (Slater), are assigned to keep the Navajos alive, or else to kill them if necessary to preserve the secrecy of the crucial code. Throughout ferocious, unrelenting combat, Yahzee and Charlie continue to transmit messages, though it is not clear why what they send — coordinates of the enemy's position — has to be in code. The Japanese already know their own location.
During World War II, Uncle Sam was still taking orders from Jim Crow, and blacks and whites fought in separate units. But, like other movie platoons, the band of Marines we follow in Windtalkers is otherwise a microcosm of American society — Italian, Irish, Norwegian, Greek, and Navajo. The group also includes a Southern redneck, Chick (Emmerich), who begins by despising the Navajos as no better than the Japanese but ends up expressing grudging respect for both. "Another fifty years, we could be sitting down with the Nipponese, drinkin' their sake, and lookin' for somebody else's ass to kick," he declares, a mite portentously.
It is not bigotry but bitterness that accounts for Joe's initial hostility toward Yahzee. "You're blocking my view," snaps Joe when the affable Navajo tries to introduce himself. The sole survivor of a massacre in the Solomon Islands, Joe suffers not only from misanthropy but a punctured eardrum and shaky equilibrium, yet he is so determined to return to battle that he fakes his physical exam. Haunted by memories of slaughtered comrades, Joe throws himself back into the fray, intent on killing as many of the enemy as he can before he dies. Nicolas Cage brings the same psychotic fervor to the role of Joe as he showed when he ate a live cockroach in Vampire's Kiss.
Windtalkers begins and ends in majestic Monument Valley, where John Ford staged so many fights between whites and Indians. This film wins one for the Navajos, though. Instead of demonizing it romanticizes them, as guardians of special mystic truths. Instead of defying Anglo hegemony, their language, which Yahzee as a child was punished for speaking in public, is the instrument of American ascendancy. When the war is over, Yahzee, who names his son George Washington, plans on being a professor of American history, and the lesson that he, like screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer, will teach is that tribal people, too, deserve our respect. However, the Japanese, faceless figures in a shooting gallery, generally get none in this film.
As if it were the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan magnified into feature length, Windtalkers immerses us in endless, ruthless slaughter. It is low-tech war fought hand-to-hand with rifles, knives, bayonets, flamethrowers, mines, grenades, and bazookas. John Woo sends limbs flying through the aromatic island air. And yet despite the horror, the viewer and a few favorites manage to survive. This was a good war because, spread out on screen within little more than two hours, it offers us the insidious illusion of immortality.
The illusion of love infects lovely Rita Swelton (O'Connor), who nursed Joe back to fighting form in Hawaii. But, ignoring her letters, Joe is fixated on killing Japanese, and bonding with Yahzee. Windtalkers is another installment in the great American romance of a white man with a dark-skinned one — consider Huck Finn and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chingachcook, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. This brutal film does not betray the Hollywood code of male affection.
"Gross and engrossing WWII flick"
Dir. John Woo; writ. John Rice & Joe Batteer; feat. Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Roger Willie, Christian Slater, Frances O'Connor (R)