Native Americans, we like to believe, live at one with the universe, serenely attuned to the ebb and flow of natural forces. The culture of the U.S. Marine Corps is quite the opposite--gung-ho machismo in full cry. Yet in World War II, the latter had a desperate need for the former, specifically for an unbreakable code, based on the Navajo language, which could be openly spoken on the radio in combat. Windtalkers is a (heavily) fictionalized account of this coupling.
John Woo's film concentrates on a non-com, Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), a Marine ordered to guard one of the code talkers, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach). Joe is to protect the Navajo if possible, to kill him if it looks as if Ben will be captured by the Japanese. Joe, however, is a bit shell-shocked, or as we now say, suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome. He has followed orders before, and, as a result, is the sole, death-haunted survivor of a unit he led into an ambush. He resolves not to become too close to a man he may have to kill. But the Navajo is a charmer, and the movie heads toward an utterly predictable ending, during the battle for Saipan, that is both culturally reconciling and personally tragic.
This does not render Windtalkers worthless, though it does pretty much ignore code talking--how it was invented and how it worked. It exists as a largely unexamined premise, while the picture pursues the more routinely uplifting theme of male bonding across fairly standard barriers of ignorance and prejudice.
On the other hand, Woo's battle sequences are outstanding. Woo has made his reputation largely with more fantastic films (Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2), but he proves here that he's equally adept with more traditional material. His low, restlessly moving camera captures the anarchy of small-unit combat vividly, powerfully. But the energy and conviction of the action sequences don't quite compensate for Windtalkers' emotional cliches and historical heedlessness.
--By Richard Schickel