Our review of Windtalkers, published November 4th, 2002, is also available.
Protect the code at all costs.
Classified by the Pentagon until 1969, the heroic contributions of Navajo communications specialists to American operations during World War II were, until relatively recently, a little-known footnote in 20th century history. Using a substitution cipher based on their intricate verbal language, several hundred Navajo volunteers, called "code talkers," confounded Japanese encryption analysts while relaying thousands of mission-critical messages throughout the Pacific theater.
Thinking the story of the code talkers could deliver boffo box office, MGM handed international action director John Woo a blank check (ultimately made out in the neighborhood of $120 million) and bankable star Nicolas Cage (who worked with Woo previously in Face/Off) and waited for the cash registers to rejoice. Following a post-9/11 release delay of six months and a barrage of tepid reviews, Windtalkers debuted to general disinterest (and a puny $40 million) at the ticket counter. An extras-challenged DVD release in the fall of 2002 likewise failed to enthrall the buying public.
Determined to recoup a portion of the serious coinage expended on this mega-budget underachiever, MGM unleashes this deluxe three-disc Windtalkers: Director's Edition package, showcasing an extended cut of the film and a tempting smorgasbord of supplemental features.
Facts of the Case
Marine Corporal Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage, probably wishing he'd had an imaginary twin brother along to pump some life into this cliché-ridden script, like in Adaptation), fresh from a firefight that cost him an eardrum and his entire platoon, just hit the trifecta: a promotion to sergeant, a nomination for the Silver Star, and a new assignment. The latter requires Joe to play bodyguard to a top-secret communications asset, a Navajo "code talker" named Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, Smoke Signals), whose language is the key to an uncrackable code designed to foil Japanese intelligence. The Navajo code is so vital to the American military that Joe may be faced with a gruesome choice—assassinating his charge to keep the code out of Axis hands.
For thorough and insightful analysis of Windtalkers in the time-honored DVD Verdict style, take a stroll over to Judge Dan Mancini's fine evaluation here on the site. I liked the film slightly less than Judge Mancini did, but only slightly, as evidenced by my marginally lower Scales of Justice for Acting and Story. In the main, I found Dan's comments spot on target.
I'll offer a few brief addenda under The Rebuttal Witnesses below.
Fortunately for DVD collectors, this three-disc Director's Edition of Windtalkers is a dandy, and worth a spin for the supplemental content alone. Disc One hosts the retooled edit of the feature film. John Woo's director's cut reinstalls about 20 minutes of additional footage. According to Woo's optional on-camera introduction that opens the disc, most of the new material appears in the combat sequences. There are also a couple of restored scenes that flesh out the relationship between Nicolas Cage's character, Joe Enders, and a Navy nurse played by Frances O'Connor who mothers Joe back to health early in the movie. Whether the additions improve the film is a matter of interpretation. The theatrical cut was over two hours long already, and both the padded battlefield sections and the development of the Enders character only guide the film away from its ostensible core, the code talkers themselves.
Be that as it may, the new anamorphic transfer is incredible. Brilliantly sharp, flawlessly color balanced, and derived from a spotless original print, Windtalkers may be the best-looking film I've seen on DVD this year. I didn't notice any digital noise, compression errors, and only the barest minimum of the dreaded edge enhancement. You can this one to the list of discs you whip into the player when your Luddite non-adopter VHS holdout friends drop by—they'll spring for a player in no time.
(Just don't let them pay attention to the movie.) The audio presentation is also excellent, with stunning ambient separation and crystal-clear music. To my ear, it lacked a little whoomph at the bottom end, particularly in the battle scenes, but unless you're pathologically driven to convince your neighbors that armed conflict has broken out in your living room, it'll do fine.
The feature comes with a triple array of audio commentaries, each with something to recommend it to some segment of the audience. Director John Woo and producer Terence Chang duet on an informative but rather pedestrian track that concentrates on the technical aspects of the production. Stars Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater ramble and goof their way through a buddy-buddy yakfest that will probably appeal more to fans of either actor than devotees of this film (if there are any). Best of all, Roger Willie, a Navajo historian and first-time actor (Charlie Whitehorse in Windtalkers), teams with Albert Smith, one of the real-life code talkers, for an insightful conversation about the code talker experience and Navajo culture. This latter track moves slowly and has frequent long silences, but as Spencer Tracy might have said, "what there is, is cherce." None of these commentaries is spectacular, but between the three, you'll have redeemed the price of admission.
Also on Disc One, you'll find Windtalkers's theatrical and teaser trailers, both in widescreen, plus additional trailers hawking the Special Edition DVDs of Die Another Day, Dances With Wolves, and Hannibal. There's also a pair of rather pointless screens with cover art from other MGM discs.
Disc Two, Behind the Story, kicks off with The Code Talkers: A Secret Code of Honor. This 22-minute widescreen documentary provides an overview of the World War II Code Talker program, though in far less depth (and with far more movie tie-in) than I would have liked to see. Still, it's an intriguing peek into history, blending scenes from the film with archival footage and stills, alongside interviews with several of the surviving code talkers. If I ruled the world, I would have dispensed with all the chiming-in from the actors and filmmakers and devoted more time to the real-life heroes, but since I don't, this taste will suffice.
American Heroes: A Tribute to Navajo Code Talkers is a shorter (about eight minutes) documentary, given over mostly to the efforts mounted in recent years to honor the Navajo radiomen. It concludes with a scroll-by of the names of the 29 original code talkers, followed by the dozens of others whose contributions have been documented through military records research. A worthwhile memorial.
The Music of Windtalkers (about 4:30) spotlights composer James Horner and the development of the film's stirring score. A 30-second spot advertising the soundtrack CD follows this brief featurette.
Disc Three, Behind the Scenes, houses most of the technical meat and potatoes. Let's dig in:
• A collection of four Multi-Angle Battle Sequences offer a unique look at some of the film's combat scenes. Each scene is presented in a three-panel split-screen view, with a screen-width panel at the top of the frame and two half-width panels below. The three panels show the finished sequence, complete with soundtrack; behind-the-scenes footage showing how the sequence was shot; and the original storyboard art. Using the Angle Change remote button, the viewer can toggle any of the three views into the large panel for optimal analysis. These are relatively brief clips, ranging between one and two minutes in length.
• Four Fly-on-the-Set Scene Diaries provide a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking. These clips total approximately 23 minutes of raw footage shot live on the set, with natural sound. At various points, the director and members of the cast interject voiceover comments about the proceedings. If desired, the viewer can select an option that follows the scene diary with the completed sequence from the film.
• Actors' Boot Camp is a 15-minute featurette showing the actors participating in a special Marine basic training session prior to the start of principal photography. The camp was conducted with the training methodologies and equipment that would have been in use during World War II. The cast members add audio commentary. Fun for those who long for the glory days of Battle of the Network Stars.
• A production stills gallery serves up about 35 backstage photos.
• A text biography of John Woo tells you, in five screens or less, everything you ever wanted to know about the director's distinguished (until this movie, anyway) career.
All the filmed supplements on both Discs Two and Three can be viewed with optional subtitles in Spanish, French, or Portuguese.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is one of those movies that illustrates the fact that the most dangerous world anyone in Hollywood ever learned was
"More." Windtalkers suffers from the all-too-common conceit that, whatever's not working with the picture, "more" will help it: more explosions, more special effects, more fight scenes, more noise, more bombast, more money (the "louder is better" school of filmmaking). If anything, Windtalkers might have been better with less of all of the above, along with less of one other detrimental factor: Nicolas Cage.
Cage is in this picture for no better reason than to land a few more fannies in the theater seats. His character, occupying the film's center stage, only detracts from the real—and better—story of the code talkers, who get shoved aside frequently so Mr. Cage can practice his monotone drawl and facial contortions. Cage can be an effective and entertaining action star when he has other strong actors to play against: Sean Connery in The Rock, John Malkovich in Con Air, even John Travolta in Face/Off. Here, Cage is asked to shoulder most of the load, and with a weak script and hackneyed character—the burned-out Marine hovering at the razor's edge of dementia, seeking redemption for a battlefield mishap—that load gets heavy, and it ain't his brother.
The real problem, though, is that Windtalkers blew a golden opportunity to show us something fresh and fascinating—the incredible story of the Navajo radiomen. Instead, the filmmakers contented themselves with piling on more of the same tired war movie folderol. We get tantalizing glimpses of the code talkers' tale, but John Woo keeps interrupting them to show us more Sgt. Enders and His Howling Commandos. Maybe I'm finicky, but I'd prefer that a movie entitled Windtalkers actually spent more time enlightening me about the "windtalkers," even at the expense of the high-ticket sturm und drang. Of course, that movie probably wouldn't sell a million tickets. Then again, MGM, this one didn't either.
It's John Woo, so you could do worse. Unfortunately, this time Woo did.
Windtalkers isn't awful, but it's trite and lifeless, with dialogue so flat and insubstantial you could mail it in a #10 envelope and not even spring for an extra stamp. Made worthwhile only by the treasure trove of extras added for this Director's Edition release.
The gallant men of the Code Talker project are excused with the heartfelt apologies of the Court. All charges against the DVD production crew at MGM are summarily dismissed thanks to this exceptional set.
John Woo is sentenced to a year on the reservation learning the Navajo code, in the hope that he'll gain enough appreciation for the brave heroes who wielded it with valor that he'll admit he should have made this movie about them, instead of another cardboard Caucasian in the person of Nicolas Cage. Mr. Cage is sentenced to billing himself in his next movie as "Brad's Bud." We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Director John Woo
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