When director John Woo looks at a script in order to decide if it's a good
one for him to do, he must look first for action sequences, on which he has a
certain patented style. Or, if not style, at least a body of work that
affords him his reputation as an action director. With the historical
background of World War II, this story of how Navajo speakers created a code
that was unbreakable by the Japanese, provided action in sufficient amounts
to satisfy his criteria.
The danger in such an approach is that a particular directorial skill tends
toward an overemphasis in that part of a film to the detriment of other
parts. Combine that shortcoming with the character needs of a popular actor
and you wind up with a miscalculation. It may be based on a slice of
historical reality that is nothing less than fascinating but the emphasis
is not only off, it's seriously gone astray.
Woo and his story developers apparently felt that the dramatic core revolved
around those American GI's who "protected" the Navajo radiomen (here called
'Windtalkers') while on the battlefield, with the assignment to do anything
they had to do to prevent any of them being taken alive by the enemy as
hostages. Under pain of death, the code was not to be compromised.
And so, we have Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) whose inner demons guide
his every thought and action. In this character, we have a creation of
extreme anguish bordering on mental instability, but it appeared to the
filmmakers to be the stuff of compelling drama.
Nicolas Cage, himself, seems to be as much of the problem as the writing.
He completely immerses himself into a morose withdrawal and, when an
incredibly gorgeous caregiver, in the person of Nurse Rita Swelton (Frances
O'Connor) singles him out for her affection (for reasons beyond anything
scripted), we yell and shout at him: 'Go for her! Respond to her! Write
back to her!'. But, of course, that's just yelling at the screen. We are to
have no romance here. It'll distract from the mental turmoil on the
When someone reminded John Woo that he had to retain some kind of female
presence in Enders' life, he settled for a one-sided romance. All this tells
us is that our hero is one card away from a full deck and not the calibre of
man who should be holding another's life in his unsteady hands.
Sergeant Peter "Ox" Henderson (Christian Slater) is the male parallel to
Enders -- more talkative, more open, someone facing the same ultimate
decision if necessary. Each anglo sergeant has his Navajo 'windtalker'.
Enders is assigned an affable private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach); Henderson gets
Private Charles Whitehorse (Roger Willie) a flute player with whom he can
create wind instrument duos with his harmonica. Symbolism? Rapping you on
Rounding out the squad are actors-as-GIs Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Noah
Emmerich, Martin Henderson, Peter Stormare and Jason Isaacs. Why these men
didn't praise and idolize their leader Enders for his unbelievable heroics is
another question left unanswered, except for the unbelievable part. And,
despite the well staged hand-to-hand fighting, bodies made airborne by the
explosives and the familiar action of 103 stunt players, John Woo's flair for
such sequences pales in comparison to others. For a glipse of how action can
be better coordinated and more integrated with the story line one need not
look any farther than Doug Liman's currently playing "The Bourne Identity" and/or Steven Spielberg's
John Woo and Nicolas Cage do little to enhance their reputations with this
one, which is not to say that an indiscriminate war film buff might not get a
fix out of the action content here. For others, the most memorable character
might well be that angelic nurse. Certainly, Frances O'Connor's beauty as
well as the delicate way she portrays her character's selflessness, are not
to be forgotten. It's just wasted in the wrong movie.
And, for more details about the fascinating story of the Navajo code men, see
a documentary or the next movie that comes along on the subject. If you
don't want to wait, read
Deanne Durrett's "Unsung Heroes of World War II: The Story of
the Navajo Code Talkers". This movie barely suggests the reality.
~~ Jules Brenner