A warning to readers: This review reveals much of the plot of the film Windtalkers, which opens this weekend.
World War II movies have become Hollywood's warhorses -- big, hulking moneymakers that run roughshod over emotions. John Woo's Windtalkers is no exception. Larded with war-movie clichés, tubs of gore and body parts, and multiple, unabashed grabs for the heartstrings, Windtalkers is a familiar, if harrowing, viewing experience. Underlying the bloody schlock, however, is a countercurrent that charges many Woo movies: an ultimately moving story about the hard, gritty love between men who have put each other through hell, and saved each other from it.
The movie draws on an intriguing part of U.S. history: During World War II, some 400 Navajo were recruited to transmit messages through a code based on their language, which Japanese forces never succeeded in breaking. The use of the Navajo code and the role of the codetalkers was declassified in the 1960s; in 1992, the government recognized the Navajos' invaluable contributions, particularly in the Pacific campaign of the war.
Windtalkers focuses on one such Navajo, a young man named Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage), a bodyguard of sorts, has been assigned to protect him. Unbeknownst to Ben, Joe is under orders to "protect the code at all costs" -- i.e. shoot Ben if he falls into Japanese hands. If that isn't wretched enough, Joe is a walking wreck, a royally screwed-up, tatter-eared, insane van Gogh of the battlefield, scarred from an ambush where he sacrificed his own men to adhere to orders. But Ben is a near-saint at first, a sweet, unflaggingly patriotic father and husband who makes the mistake of trusting Joe. This being a war movie, we know the explosion will come -- the
revelation of the awful truth, the blistering anger that will burn away naivete and friendship.
Before that happens, the movie spends its time splashing us with blood. Woo fans will spot his visual stamp a mile off in the stylized violence, as intricately choreographed as a ballet. His Hong Kong movies, such as Hard-Boiled and The Killer, featured gunfighting that was so involved and over-the-top that audiences didn't know whether to applaud or laugh. But this time around Woo is serious, and no one is chuckling. He intersperses the bayoneting, dehanding, beheading, and screaming with depictions of awful beauty. At one point, we contemplate a pastoral scene of still green water, only to see blood bloom underneath its
surface. At another, a man is caught in a bramble of barbed wire, and dies upside-down like a trapped bird.
Woo also ladles out plenty of sentimental goo: the obligatory Woovian scenes of a soldier shot while trying to rescue a child; the slo-mo shots of dying men casting reproachful looks at the living. Woo also nearly drowns the movie's depictions of Navajo culture in a syrup of sunsets, smoke, and face painting. "Images of Indians are about the three d's," a Native American journalist once told me. "We're either dead, drunk, or dancing. Oh yeah, and gambling."
Windtalkers thankfully avoids most of those clichés. But it flirts with the "dancing" through depictions of the noble savagery that is one half of the ipecac cocktail of awe and scorn usually meted out to Native American characters. Thus Christian Slater (Sergeant Peter Anderson) puts away his Jack Nicholson Mini-Me act long enough to perform little homespun ballads of racial harmony with a Navajo man -- Slater on harmonica, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) on wooden flute. But then comes a moment that redeems the movie's treatment of Native American culture, when Ben conducts a "Navajo horseshit" ritual, as Joe calls it, over Joe's sleeping body, with ash from a cigarette. The depiction of the ritual is desentimentalized, stripped from movie-mystical underpinnings. As a result, we see it as an expression of faith and friendship, rather than an exoticized display.
As for racism, that's depicted just as broadly as the fighting. Ben endures a torrent of verbal and physical abuse from a hateful white soldier. But Ben is our hero, and doesn't hesitate to dole out lessons on Navajo culture, and the tragedies of Navajo history with white men. Too bad his keen sense of systemic racial injustice doesn't kick in when he learns the truth about Joe's orders. Ben doesn't rail against a country that suddenly values the language it tried to force his people not to speak; he doesn't shake his fist at the fact that he is as expendable as Kleenex. Yes, he's crazy with hatred and angry. But he only lashes out on a personal level.
Despite that shortcoming, the sense of betrayed friendship is the key to what ultimately saves the movie. Ben and Joe act out a dance of mistrust, loyalty, and redemption that is more genuine than any harmonica-wooden flute duet. They need each other -- for solace, to chase away the ghosts, and to bring the living closer. But this love story is told by a master of destruction, one whose trademark shot is of two men in a stand-off, guns drawn and pointed at each other's face. That scene never comes for Ben and Joe, but by the end of the movie, they lie together, bloodied, panting, near death, as close as lovers. By this time they've threatened to kill each other, and each has pleaded to be killed by the other. For Woo and for us, that's as true a declaration of love as any.