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Windtalkers (2002) starstarstar

Reviewed 2002-10-19
: Nobody does action like John Woo, the director of the super-violent Mission: Impossible II (1997) and others. In fact, this is the second collaboration between director Woo and actor Nicolas Cage -- their first being the memorable action flick Face/Off. Windtalkers explores a story from World War II that has fascinated me since I was a child: the Navajo Code 2nd LookTalkers who helped the Marines win in the Pacific theater by relaying information in a code the clever enemy could not break. Not only did the Native American soldiers speak in Navajo, a language the enemy had little chance of acquiring, but, in the true sense of the word code, they used Navajo names for military nouns such as "tank," artillery," and so on. As long as a code talker, or windtalker is never caught and "persuaded" by the Japanese to divulge the code, the system is a perfect one.

Nicolas Cage plays the gung-ho Marine, Sergeant Joseph T. 'Joe' Enders. While recovering from wounds in a battle where he was forced to take command, but lost all of his men, he longs to return to battle. He gets his chance when the Code Talker program needs him: each Code Talker needs a minder, not to protect the man, but to protect the code. Therein lies the conflict: already Joe keeps his emotional distance from everyone around him, even the very attractive and solicitous nurse (Frances O'Connor), who writes to him when Joe is shipped to the Pacific as second in command during the battle to take Saipan. His charge is Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, a real Indian of the Ojibwa tribe who learned Navajo for this role). Problem is, how do you fight and live in such close quarters with another human being, especially one so likeable as Ben, and not, well, grow to like him -- even though you may be forced to kill him to protect the code?

Faced with the same orders and dilemma is Sergeant Pete 'Ox' Anderson (Christian Slater), who watches over Private Charlie Whitehorse (first-timer Roger Willie, a real Navajo and Persian Gulf War veteran). Ox tells Joe he just can't follow those orders, and of course he is tested in battle. As are they all: the battle scenes are just as exciting to watch as is the human drama to experience. Some of the plot details are to be expected: the overt racism toward the "injuns," for one. But Woo, and writers John Rice and Joe Batteer, keep the script sensitive, mostly without indulging later-day political correctness. And I stress again that the battle scenes, following the path blasted by such films as Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates, are extreme and difficult to watch. I've said before that the American movie-going public seems far more comfortable with blasted chests than bare breasts, but (admitting the scarcity of the latter) here the bullets and gore are appropriate.

The acting is uniformly excellent: each of the company members defines a memorable character, and although Slater is completely overshadowed by Cage (one of my favorite actors since Raising Arizona, 1987), he manages to hold his own. The only nod to PC characterization is the story's insistence that all of the "Native Americans" are paragons of virtue and all of the white men are flawed human beings (whatever Native American means: I was born in America, too -- am I not a Native American?). But, that cavil aside, Windtalkers is worthwhile watching.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.