Windtalkers (2002) follows Sgt. Enders (Nicolas Cage) on his mission to protect Navajo code-talker Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) during the taking of Saipan during WWII. Yahzee’s deep spirituality transforms Enders into the hero he needs to be to protect the code, save Yahzee and redeem himself. This rough summary really gives one the sense of what a gratuitous “white savior” narrative Windtalkers is. The continued fetishization of Native American culture that passes for “progressive” in contemporary cinema is disturbing. Windtalkers embraces every cliche regarding the depiction of Native people in a post-Dances With Wolves (1990) culture to the point that these characters are little more than caricatures.
The casual jingoism of Windtalkers is only one of the many negative aspects of the script. Clearly this film was envisioned as Saving Private Ryan (1998) for the Eastern Theatre and little to no effort is made to disguise this fact. Beat for beat from one film is recreated in the other. If it weren’t for John Woo’s indomitable style, the films would literally be clones. Woo’s direction is some of his best work but it gets bogged down by studio requirements and an abominable screenplay.
Windtalkers should have been great. Repairing Woo and Cage for a big budget WWII version of Woo’s earlier Bullet In The Head (1990) would have been a stroke of genius. Building the plot around Navajo code-talkers would have even worked and been welcomed. The frustrating thing is that with the big Hollywood budget comes corporate mandates that greatly restrict Woo’s talents. The pulpy auteurist vision of Woo’s Hong Kong films from the eighties and early nineties seem to have been aided by the invention that comes with minimal resources and fewer interventions from studio bosses.
Windtalkers ends up being little more than your basic, early 21st century war spectacle. The Wagnerian cartoonishness of Face/Off (1997) is absent, as are the magnetic performances that made Hard Boiled (1992) and A Better Tomorrow (1986) so outstanding in their genre. Windtalkers might as well be called John Woo’s “straight to video” knock off of Spielberg’s pretentious opus Saving Private Ryan.