Love Is a Battlefield

Joshua Rothkopf

Ben Yahzee, the young Navajo codetalker, must be kept out of enemy hands
With its deep bows to Monument Valley and other distant frontiers, its choked-off military men struggling with codes of honor and unforgiving environments, Windtalkers could have easily unspooled under the name John Ford. Such comparisons should not be made lightly or uncritically. This is big, blustery “American” moviemaking of a purity that, as with Ford’s, relies on an undeniable simplification of events—in this case, the Marines’ wartime exploits of Navajo-born soldiers, deployed to the Pacific theater as speakers of an unbreakable code, their own obscure language.

The unheralded story of these crucial “codetalkers” (the actual title is a bit of poetic license) is a weighty one, and director John Woo, an action genius, tamps down his celebrated slo-mo gun dancing considerably, as if yielding to several kinds of gravity. This may come as a disappointment to those who respect Woo as a choreographer and little else—but hopefully a revelation, too. From where else, if not great passion and greater betrayal, could such reserves of violence (and ammo) be unleashed? Chow Yun-Fat, Woo’s heavy-lidded surrogate, was a lover and a fighter; those tense barrel-to-temple showdowns he often found himself sweating through were Woo’s shorthand for the double-edged nature of devotion and heartbreak.

Windtalkers, which strives foremost to be a study in loyalties, should prove a test case for disbelievers. This is not to say Woo avoids a hefty body count, or even serious faults, just not on his detractors’ grounds of shallowness or, more unfairly, camp. (Woo shed irony long before it became fashionable.) The drama gathers solemnly in reverent counterstrokes: Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a Navajo recruit, boards the bus for Camp Pendelton just as Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), an order-bound squad leader, seems hopelessly pinned down in a bloody standoff on the Solomon Islands. Joe’s entire unit gets wiped out, but he survives: battle-scarred, hospitalized and consumed with guilt.

To call what Cage is doing here an actor’s plunge into despair may be putting too cheery a spin on it. He somehow has managed to make not just his eyes, but his whole face appear hollow. (The transformation may have you yearning for the homicidal dementia he brought to Woo’s Face/Off, where at least he had the benefit of being bipolar.) But the dour choice is a sound one for such a dutiful machine as Joe, whose scary sense of discipline has taken the lives of all his friends.

His superiors recognize this by giving him a particularly loathsome reassignment after he fakes a full recovery: the protection of Ben, the young Navajo, with additional secret orders to guard the code “at all costs”—an implied directive to kill his charge before letting him fall into enemy hands. The two meet coolly, the little war already raging inside the big war, and soon take off to storm the island of Saipan.

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It’s a bold premise to hang a picture on, especially in light of the Marines’ continued denial that such illegal kill orders were ever issued. (Admissions have come from other official sources, including Congress in its face-saving bill honoring the Navajo contribution more than 50 years later.) Windtalkers makes the most of it, provocatively becoming more of a comment on America’s homegrown racism than any foreign invasion—a postmodern Western with cowboys, Indians and the Japanese, signifying not so much an adversary as a force of nature. At one point, the unit even takes heavy shelling from “friendly” fire, spurring heroic acts from both Ben and Joe.

We may not see such subversive impulses in our war movies again anytime soon (Woo’s release was delayed from last fall), but audiences may find one line of dialogue, bitterly voiced by Joe and then repeated later, bracing in today’s multiplex: “Yeah, I’m a good fuckin’ Marine.” Not your everyday sentiment from the Greatest Generation fighting the Good War. As Joe’s self-loathing finds its larger institutional target, Windtalkers thrillingly flirts with revisionism.

Still, such readings only go so far before jamming in narrower passages; the script, credited to John Rice and Joe Batteer, wants to solve too much too soon. Coarsening the appealing complexity between fresh-faced Ben and sullen Joe (whose secret orders make him mysteriously remote to overtures of friendship) are a raft of standard-issue scenes straight from the old Hollywood battle plan: foot soldiers suddenly awakening to epiphanies of the Navajo-are-people-too variety; or a painfully symbolic jam session between bodyguard and codetalker on harmonica and windflute. For all that manufactured guff, it comes as a shame that the most obvious question is never addressed: Why is Ben, born on the reservation and disenfranchised in every civil sense at home, so damn patriotic?

I’m being hard on Windtalkers only because it could have been that much more. In fairness, its corrective liberalism warrants the same suspicion as Black Hawk Down’s phony jingoism. But go back to Woo’s strong suit—and know beforehand that these are his most brutal action sequences to date—and you’ll see what elevates him over Ridley Scott. One director is a remote strategist, safe in his metal bunker, flitting imperially from one interchangeable hell to the next. The other strides the battlefield on a horse, traveling great distances only to see his men die and to weep for them. Woo reminds us that wars are fought by people; this is what makes his film great.

Joshua Rothkopf has been covering cinema for In These Times since 1999. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Chicago Reader, Isthmus and City Pages, among other publications.
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