Pros: Special effects were decent.
Cons: Acting, plot, historical failures, plausibility all failed to measure up.
An esteemed reviewer suggested that Windtalkers required the creation of a new genre...the wasted opportunity. There are no words I could find to sum up my feelings about this film that would better frame my opinion of this film than wasted opportunity. I found this film in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart...figuring a story about the true Code Talkers of World War II would be an excellent addition to my collection. I'm not a big fan of Nicholas Cage, but I figured a film about my beloved Marine Corps was a must have. At five bucks I thought it to be a steal.
Windtalkers touts itself as a film about Navajo Code Talkers. Their communications were unbreakable by the Japanese. This was an important strategic part of the US Campaigns in the Pacific...giving the United States a tactical advantage over the Japanese. Every Marine Recruit is drilled with Marine Corps History during their indoctrination at MCRD Parris Island or San Diego. The Pacific Campaign contains major elements of Marine Corps history...stories of Tarawa (the bloodiest battle) and Midway and the Island Hopping Campaign that was adopted from General Ellis' Orange Plan. It was formulated in 1926 by the eerily prophetic General Ellis and became the cornerstone of World War II operations in the Pacific. One key event in the Pacific was the United States breaking of the tough Japanese "purple" code (our name for the Japanese code). The United States broke the Purple Code immediately prior to the battle of Midway, which every Marine knows was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. With an edge over the Japanese, our secure coded communications were never breached by Japanese Intelligence.
It seems clear that something as simple as breaking the Japanese Purple Code could turn the war in the United States favor. The prospects for telling the story of the Native Americans who developed a code based on their native language would be an important historically significant tale. A story that could swell the chests of Native Americans from every tribe (Code Talkers included Navajo, Comanche, Choctaw, Cherokee, Meskwaki and even Basque). I would personally be offended by the drivel that substituted for an intellectual examination of the contribution made by these men. This film was more about Nicholas Cage and his inability to fire a machine gun with his mouth closed (he has the ugliest "war face" I have ever seen). The opportunities to highlight the contributions of the Navajo were reduced down to three inane communications, one that made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
In terms of background...allow me to explain a bit about the film. Nicholas Cage stars as Sgt Joe Enders, a Marine whose heroics (that is to say, he alone survived a brutal attack in the Solomon Islands) earning him the coveted Silver Star. Enders rehabs at the Naval Hospital in Kaneohe Bay. Now, Kaneohe Bay was a Naval Base during World War II and was actually the first base attacked by the Japanese. The base had seaplanes, which could be scrambled quickly if not taken out first. However, during my time at Kaneohe Bay the piddly Medical Center barely had a Sick Call...you definitely wouldn't want to be treated long term there. Tripler Army Hospital would probably have been a more likely destination. Enders can't wait to get back into action, faking his hearing test in order to be cleared for duty. Enders new assignment is to ensure the safety, and if necessary prevent the capture of a Code Talker, a Navajo named Pvt Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).
Pvt Yahzee is joined by Pvt Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) whose personal bodyguard is Sgt Pete Anderson (Christian Slater). The Navajo are not entirely welcome in the unit, with one particular soldier making it know that he doesn't like Indians...predictably, his life is saved by Pvt Whitehorse later in the film. The unit is given several missions which put them directly in harms way while engaging in small unit tactics. The superior firepower of the enemy never seems to be able to overcome the inferior numbers and complete lack of fire discipline and tactical movement by the group. The men fight bravely, rarely using the skills of the codetalkers. The movie ends after a major firefight, but well before the war has ended, following Sgt Anders rather than the Navajo men.
There was so much to be disappointed by in this film, I don't know where to begin. I guess I would start with the premise. The heroics of the Navajo were really not explored in this film which purports to be about them. The lame instances where they are used are poorly constructed and make no tactical sense. I doubt that two Navajo were embedded in the thick of the fighting among a small unit engaged in small unit tactics. I would suggest that they were more likely attached to a larger unit designed to coordinate communications between major battle groups or transmit intelligence data gathered on Japanese activities. That is an uninformed guess, but simply makes sense. In one scene, Sgt Anders and Pvt Yahzee go behind Japanese lines to use their radio in a daring and ridiculously stupid stunt. Anders would have been court-martialed for that bone-head move. When your orders are specifically to prevent the capture of the Code Talker, delivering him to the enemy is the last thing your supposed to do. But the two of them manage to take on an entire Japanese Company....imagine that.
There were many other inaccuracies as well. I dont' know when the Marine Hymn changed exactly, but I believe the version they sang in this film was pre-1919. The tactical movements were also poorly executed. They were continually bunched up with no noise discipline, no fire discipline and no distance between Marines. Most Marines probably wouldn't want to be 50 meters from the guy with the radio on his back...he's a moving target. There was one scene where Anders heroically throws a satchel charge into a Japanese Pill Box. Explosions take the path of least resistance...so the majority of the blast is going to force out through the opening it entered from. Cage was probably about ten feet from the opening. That's the kill zone. That charge would probably effectively kill out to twenty or thirty meters just by concussion. Then we get to see a simple grenade blow up a Japanese Tank. Come on. This is a historical film...do a little bit of research...please. Overall, this film was as much an embarrassment to this Marine as it must have been to the Native Americans it could have honored.
The writing (John Rice and Joe Batteer) was as bad as it could possibly have been. The characters were flat and predictable. The plot was simplistic. The dialogue was hackneyed. The pacing was off. The attempts to build suspense were obvious. The writing seemed hurried and spastic. I did not care for any aspect of the writing. Most importantly, the writers chose a theme and then completely ignored it. The few references to the Code Talkers seemed to be added simply as an afterthought. The Code Talker sequences were forced and certainly not plausible. Many of the intense situations were simply not to be believed. There is only so far you can stretch an idea before it loses it's elasticity and snaps. This film crossed that line.
The acting was equally bad. Nicholas Cage was horrible. He cannot shoot a weapon with his mouth closed. I haven't figured out how that helped him aim better. His lack of fire discipline seemed to be an attempt to seem indestructable. His delivery felt like a bad John Wayne interpretation that I wasn't buying. He wasn't tough...he came across more as pained. Christian Slater wasn't entirely bad, the writing didn't help him any...but I wasn't buying Slater's performance either. Roger Willie's character was completely predictable. I actually liked Willie a bit but his performance was nothing special...I just think he was well cast for the part. Casting characters in roles that don't fit them seemed to be a common theme (with the exception of Willie). This group just didn't feel like war tested Marines.
Other issues I had with this film were the inaccurate use of special effects (a grenade blowing up a tank), the lack of consideration towards grooming standards (look at Ruffalo's moustache...that would never fly in garrison...maybe in the field, but not in the rear). The order in which things were done at times...everything seemed to be just thrown together with little attention to detail. You force me to believe that two code talkers are going to be imbedded in small unit tactics then mysteriously, when needed most...one radio gets destroyed and the other code talker is nowhere to be found...and there are no other radio operators to be found anywhere. Now you set up an opportunity to breach the enemy lines and use THEIR radio. That whole situtation felt sloppy. What a complete mess.
Some of the special effects were big. But big budgets don't always mean good effects. When you blow up a tank with a grenade, the effect may be spectacular, but if it is not believable then you have failed. The same with unlimited ammunition. Cage only ran out of ammo when it was convenient for the script. At other times he must have had two thousand rounds of ammunition. The explosions and some of the injuries appeared to be done well in spite of the plausibility. Overall, the special effects budget was well spent, just not well incorporated into the script.
Windtalkers is epic in length at 134 minutes. That is a long time for a film that missed so many opportunities. The MPAA gave this turkey an R rating due to the graphic war violence and contextual language. I didn't find either to be excessively offensive considering the subject matter. The R rating is well deserved, but I would not object to my ten year old watching this film...if it had been worth watching. As a historical piece, if it had been done right, I would have loved for him to have seen it due to the historical significance. Because the film was an excercise in missed opportunities, I would not recommend this film to anyone.
Windtalkers was a sad disappointment. What I thought was a hidden gem in the Bargain Bin was a waste of five dollars. The lack of integrity within the script, the weak casting, tepid acting and lack of historical context made me rue my purchase. This film was a complete mess from start to finish. I would not recommend this film giving it one star out of a possible five.