For the battle to control the Japanese island of Saipan during the war (1942), Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) and Ox Anderson (Christian Slater) are assigned to protect two Navajo American code talkers Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) – two of hundreds who are trained to use their own native language as the basis for a new secret code. But the orders are to protect the code, not the individual men – and not to allow the Navajos to be captured alive. As the bonds of friendship inevitably develop during the fierce battle, each man’s courage and friendship and state of mind is tested to the ultimate.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It is 60 years ago exactly since the incidents that form the foundation of this film took place, and as usual, the factual stories that end up on screen are far more inventive than anything we writers can imagine. The drama of war and its extreme circumstances is also a perennial, fertile ground for stories to inspire us, to show both sides of the human spirit: the upside of courage, loyalty and honour, as well as the many downsides. In this fact-inspired story, the use of the Navajo language as a secret and unbreakable code against the Japanese provides merely the trigger for a story of friendship – and the vicious battle itself as the backdrop. I suppose the film achieves what it sets out to do, but by dumbing down for its target mass market audience, and by creating characters that lack the unique characteristics of real people, the film betrays its potential. I’d like to have seen how the code was thought up; I’d like to have seen it in action more than once or twice and I’d like to have seen some inkling of how widespread the Windtalkers were, and a more specific idea of their achievements. It is disappointing for some to be tempted to see a movie about a subject of interest – and then find the subject under-represented. But the film does serve its own purposes and if you’ve missed the many heavy war action films in recent years, this will amply make up for them all. Scene after scene of bitter fighting, sometimes hand to hand combat, and relentless scenes of casualties overwhelm the senses – and the film. Of the cast, Adam Beach gives the standout performance, although his character suffers from the same Hollywoodisation that afflicts Cage and his co-stars: plasticity.
Review by Louise Keller:
A powerful and intense war movie with a refreshingly different focus, Windtalkers is a big budget John Woo production with a buddy theme and plenty of action in the trenches. It’s fascinating that the Navajo language was chosen because it was only spoken and largely unknown: even the slightest inflections or differences in pronunciation could change word meanings. And as a result, of course, the code was never broken. It’s a great premise for a film, and with the talented Woo at the helm, we are assured of a thrilling couple of hours with plenty of action and all the frills that a big budget Hollywood movie can offer. Some may argue that it is a little too Hollywood, but this is far from Woo’s escapist films Face Off and Mission Impossible 2, although there’s certainly plenty of entertainment value here. The heart of the film (which also reveals the most moving moments) comes from the bond established between Cage’s damaged Marine and the Navajo coded talker. Their relationship starts on shaky ground and as it develops, it is clear that although at first glance the men appear so different, they are surprisingly similar. Their rituals and beliefs may stem from different places, but eventually they find common ground. Nicolas Cage is effective as the tortured Sargeant who cuts himself off emotionally. The character is similar in some ways to that of Cage’s Oscar winning role in Leaving Las Vegas, but doesn’t have the complexity. I am sorry that I haven’t seen Smoke Signals, the Sundance Winner that introduced critically acclaimed actor Adam Beach, because he runs away with the film. Beach is most impressive and engaging, instantly likeable with his distinctive features and winning smile. Although the storyline is pretty predictable, I did enjoy the development of the relationships; the directive to protect the code at all costs also begins to blur as the importance of the man and the code merge. Most of the film takes place on the actual battle fields (like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers) and we feel as though we are there. The combat scenes are disturbing and confronting: there’s nothing subtle about them. At times the action is so acute that the sound of bullets hitting their mark, feel as close as metal in the mouth and I looked away during several harrowing moments. The sound is frighteningly realistic while James Horner’s score is both thrilling and sensitive – I especially like the use of the haunting Indian flute. The film begins and ends in peace - in the dusty, barren lands that are home to the Navajo people, where the red earth stretches are far as the eye can see. It’s a monotonous yet surprisingly gentle vista; a great contrast and a satisfying bookend finish to a hard-hitting film about war, humanity and brotherhood.
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FEATURE by Sam Connolly
CAST: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt, Martin Henderson, Roger Willie, Frances O’Connor and Christian Slater
PRODUCER: John Woo, Terence Chang, Tracie Graham, Alison Rosenzweig
DIRECTOR: John Woo
SCRIPT: John Rice & Joe Batteer
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jeffrey Kimball ASC
EDITOR: Steven Kemper, Jeff Gullo
MUSIC: James Horner
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Holger Gross
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 1, 2002
RIVERSIDE SNEAK PEEK PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 4 consecutive Tuesdays - March 10, 17, 24, 31, 2015 - at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.