“Windtalkers” is not the right name for John Woo’s new film. A more apt title would be “Sergeant Enders and the Windtalkers,” because the film mainly focuses on the complicated, half-crazed main character rather than the Navajos recruited as Marines in World War II to use their language as a military code that was vital in the allied victory. The movie does a disservice to the men it is intended to honor by perpetuating their marginalization and making the much less interesting Nicolas Cage character the main focus of the story.
We meet Sgt. Enders (Nicolas Cage) in the midst of battle. He is injured and witnessing the deaths of his friends is slowly driving him mad. His hearing loss could get him sent home, but he stays to keep fighting. He and Sgt. “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater) are assigned to protect newly enlisted Navajo fighters Pvt. Ben Yahzee and Pvt. Charlie Whitehorse, (played superbly by Adam Beach and Roger Willie, respectively) whose abilities with the Navajo code are essential in the war. Enders is noticeably disgruntled at his new duties, but through a series of events he gains a mutual respect for the men he must protect, often in entertaining but predictable fashion. The dialogue is not very memorable with lines from the Navajos like “I’ve never seen so many white men!”
“Windtalkers” follows suit of most post-“Saving Private Ryan” war films and tries to make its point by dousing us with relentless violence. As in too many war movies, there are soldiers who talk about their dreams for when they get home and say things like, “If I die, tell my wife…” and whose purpose in the plot is to help the hero learn something when they die. There’s a tough, bigoted soldier (“The Truman Show’s” Noah Emmerich) who learns that the Navajos are actually good people when one of them saves his life. There’s the doe-eyed girl next door nurse (A.I.’s Frances O’Connor) who loves her stoic, tough but somehow likeable man at war.
Cage, Slater, and a solid supporting cast of character actors are all dependably good, and it’s interesting to see John Woo’s distinctive action style put into a war film. The culture clashes are never boring, and scenes where a peace pipe ritual is carried out on a cigarette and Henderson duets on a harmonica with Whitehorse’s wooden flute are handled with sensitivity.
Parents should know that there is a great deal of graphic battle violence and very strong language, including racial epithets. The Navaho characters are portrayed as patriotic, brave, and dedicated.
Families who see this should discuss the way that Enders and Yahzee change during the course of the movie. Anyone who enjoys this movie will probably also like recent WWII films like the aforementioned Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Enemy at the Gates, and this year’s overlooked Hart’s War. Fore more on the real story of the Windtalkers, see this article.