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Bitter Code

Windtalkers turns a heroic true story into facile melodrama.



Windtalkers is an important film. It is an important film because it is about a heretofore untold chapter in American history. It acknowledges the contribution to the Allied victory in World War II by a people whose participation was kept secret for decades. And because this film is so very important, the people who made it ignore the fact that they’ve brutally oversimplified a crucial moral choice.

All right, maybe that’s a smidgen unfair to director John Woo and screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer. Windtalkers does tell an important story, about the Navajo “codetalkers” whose language became the basis for a key encryption that the Japanese could not decipher. But are we so deeply immersed in guilt for not telling this story sooner that we should pretend this film doesn’t belittle their efforts with facile battlefield melodrama?

The film’s central character—not surprisingly, since this is a Hollywood effort—turns out not to be a Navajo at all. It’s Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), a Marine corporal recovering from a brutal battle in which his decision not to retreat cost several men their lives. Eager to return to the front to redeem himself, Enders lands an assignment as personal bodyguard for one of the newly-recruited Navajo codetalkers, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). His orders: “Protect the code at all costs”—hint hint, kill Yahzee if it appears that he may fall into enemy hands, and by the way, Yahzee himself probably shouldn’t know about those orders.

Most of the film takes place during the 1944 Allied invasion of the island of Saipan, including plenty of now-obligatory gruesome war images. Bullets and bayonets rip through flesh; soldiers burst into flame; limbs and heads fly from the bodies that had previously hosted them. Action legend Woo (The Killers) directs, so the bloodletting often comes with a bit more poetry attached—bullets rip through flesh in slow motion, and soldiers burst into flame accompanied by mournful operatic music. Though artfully constructed and sometimes viscerally affecting, the violence numbs as often as it packs a punch. Since Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers and a handful of other “serious” recent war films apparently haven’t made it clear enough that war really, truly and honestly is hell, Windtalkers is obliged to escort us through yet another circle of that grisly hell.

Between battles, it’s time to meet our men-at-arms through cinematic military types, some of which were etched in stone before the actual battle of Saipan took place. There’s Pvt. Snarling Racist (Noah Emmerich), who exists to antagonize the Navajo soldiers before learning an important lesson. Pvt. Nervous Rookie (Mark Ruffalo) hyperventilates through his anxious moments. And Pvt. Toe Tag (Martin Henderson) is destined for doom as sure as he asks a fellow Marine to send his wedding ring back home if anything happens to him.

Characterization gets less ham-fisted and more compelling in the relationship between Enders and Yahzee, but it’s also here that Windtalkers builds to its untenable climax. Enders’ dilemma—whether to be the good soldier or be a good friend when the chips are down—appears on the surface to be the stuff of gripping drama. True, Nicolas Cage has spent most of the last five years devolving as an actor before our eyes. Here, however, he’s solid as a battlefield berzerker trying to reclaim some of his humanity while burdened with the potential task of executing one of his own men.

But what happens when the film refuses to give a fair shake to the idea that Enders’ assignment to protect the code was not some insidious racist plot, but in fact a strategically sound military decision? Windtalkers waves a hand at the notion that one man’s life may be worth surrendering for a greater good. You may agree or not with the sentiment, but the film scarcely acknowledges its existence. Enders makes his decision—one that risks the fate of the free world—and Woo stages it such that there’s never any question about its moral superiority. Windtalkers creates a happy ending by crapping on the sacrifice individual men were willing to make for a cause they believed in.

Those same men were the ones whose lives became the basis for this very important film. I wonder how they might feel about how casually it treats decisions that were far more important than any film.