Director John Woo's "Windtalkers" puts a human face on war. A major theme is friendship -- between different kinds of people who learn how to live and work together.
Limited to the battle for Saipan during World War II and "inspired by true events," "Windtalkers" celebrates heretofore unsung heroes -- Navajo code talkers who became our secret weapon in the Pacific theater. They derived a code from their unwritten language; it was never broken by the Japanese.
The movie opens with breathtaking landscapes of the natural beauty of the Arizona mesa -- red rocks, open sky and clouds, and winds. Wind is prominent in Navajo culture, and the Navajo referred to themselves as wind talkers, hence the title.
The story concerns Marine code talkers and the bodyguards assigned them. The code talkers face racism, culture clash and suspicion. The bodyguards face a moral dilemma: Not only are they to protect the Indians from the enemy but also "the code at all costs," even if it means killing fellow Marines. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), a war-weary Marine, is assigned to protect Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a new Navajo recruit; and Ox Anderson (Christian Slater) looks out for Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie).
The half-dozen stunning battle sequences are both epic and human in scale. From 360-degree vistas and extreme wide shots to the hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, tommy guns and anything at hand (knives, shovels, fists), the battles are grueling. Realistic detail comes courtesy of attention to setting, weapons and vehicles, uniforms and, most importantly, the camerawork and acting. Cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball oversaw more than a dozen cameras; some cameramen posed as soldiers hand-holding cameras. Woo goes for realism, almost documentary-style, and it's pretty amazing. You feel the effort, step by step, to secure the island.
If you're a war-movie fan or history buff, you'll find the clichés here, including a hyperventilating, sensitive character (Mark Ruffalo), and a Rhode Island newlywed (Martin Henderson). When the newlywed asks his nervous cohort to keep his wedding ring in case something happens, we know what's coming. But Woo uses the clichés to lull us with the familiar, making the brutality of the battles all the more horrifying.
Woo is as good with actors, drama and storytelling as with action. He makes fear, brotherhood and spiritual beliefs tangible because his heart and passion is everywhere onscreen. Likewise with the actors. Cage's ethical dilemma and anguished determination under fire is all in his eyes; Beach's transformation from green soldier to warrior is all in his expressive face. Slater surprises with his warmth, and first-time actor Willie has a presence that makes Whitehorse's spiritual touchstone believable.
"Windtalkers" celebrates the human spirit and packs an emotional wallop. Yazhee loses his innocence but not his spirit; Enders regains his humanity. Woo uses lots of close-ups to let them all do what they do best -- act -- as they struggle to survive and learn to respect each other and their differences.
Besides honoring the Navajo code talkers, "Windtalkers" is a war movie with a strong anti-war message: that all of us can live and work together, despite our differences.