Cowboys and Indians

Windtalkers is kinetic but fundamentally schlocky; Divine Secrets is a spacey tribute to mystical feminine animism.

Adam Beach and Nicolas Cage: brothers in arms?

Early in John Woo’s ferocious Windtalkers (MGM), a World War II Marine corporal named Joe (Nicolas Cage) reluctantly orders his protesting men to stand firm as they’re overrun by Japanese troops, and they all die, the last man expiring with a reproachful gaze into Joe’s eyes. Badly wounded, with a mangled ear, and wracked by guilt, Joe labors to get back to the South Pacific front, presumably to expiate his sins; but once he arrives, the mission he receives again brings his humanitarian instincts into conflict with his solemn duty. The Marines are employing Navajos to relay intelligence information in a code based on their language, and Joe’s job is to stick to one man and “protect the code”—which means, he is informed, killing the code-carrier in the event of imminent capture. Tormented not just by guilt over what he has done but over what he might have to do, Joe maintains a wary distance from his affable Navajo partner, Ben (Adam Beach). As the battles on the island of Saipan become increasingly frenzied and the cast of characters is decimated, it’s clear that the movie is heading for one of those will-he-or-won’t-he climaxes meant to leave you aghast at the emotional extremes to which men are pushed in times of war.

Does it succeed? Not a chance. But war movies have an extra layer of resonance right now, and Woo’s depiction of combat is as kinetic (and as splattery) as any ever filmed. And the scenario is real. The “windtalkers” existed—and the Marines have not entirely disputed the contention that the Navajos’ lives were regarded as far less important than the survival of the code. The screenwriters, John Rice and Joe Batteer, cast this purely in terms of bigotry against Native Americans, although a case can be made that in some wartime situations, an individual should be called upon to sacrifice himself or herself for the greater good. The horror in this instance is that the Navajos were not informed of their precarious status and that they were exploited for their language but otherwise regarded (by the old white men at the top) as entirely expendable. As one Navajo puts it, “There’s no way the cowboys would watch the Indians’ backs.”

The basic material is harrowing, the Hong-Kong-style intensity of the violence impossible to keep at arm’s length. Woo is an expert at pitting his protagonists against waves upon waves of faceless combatants, and Windtalkers might have more shootings, stabbings, bayonetings, and pinwheeling bodies than any film ever made—certainly more than Saving Private Ryan (1998), which raised the bar on explosive carnage. You sit through this movie and you know why sound editors win Academy Awards for modern war pictures: The ear is assaulted with the whiz of bullets, with close and distant blasts, with the crunch of flesh being violated and the wailing of dying men. But unlike the balletic slaughters of Sam Peckinpah or the shocking and disassociative bloodletting of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), Woo’s four major battles are essentially martial-arts feats of showmanship. If the Navajos were expendable to the Marines, to a Hong Kong action director, everyone is expendable.

Clichés come at you thick and fast. The opening, in which Ben says goodbye to his wife and little boy, is set in Monument Valley, home of so many John Ford Westerns. James Horner’s score apes Copland this time, and Woo gives you moist, slow-motion close-ups of Navajo father embracing Navajo son. The combat is blazingly high speed, but Woo is fond of ham-handedly slowing it down so that one warrior can cast a longing (or fond, or injured) look at another; they often seem on the verge of asking one another to dance. The tackiness that I used to think was ironic in Woo’s Hong Kong pictures now seems like the hallmark of a sensibility as fundamentally schlocky as anyone this side of Cecil B. DeMille.

The movie is full of weird lapses. Christian Slater ambles on, squinting merrily, and it takes awhile to realize that he’s not playing some smarmy journalist but the squadron’s most intuitive humanist. (He does harmonica/pan-pipe brotherhood-of-man duets with one of the Navajos, played by Roger Willie.) Cage keeps getting letters, read in voice-over, from Frances O’Connor as a nurse with whom he might or might not have slept; the movie is too discreet to tell us. But he’s too grimly bent on remaining an impersonal killing machine even to read them, so why do we hear them? (It’s not as if she comes back into the picture.) Someone had the not-too-bright idea of casting the bulgy-eyed Swede Peter Stormare as a tough-talking Marine captain, and when he tries to sound like a Midwesterner, his diction turns vaguely German—I kept waiting for someone to expose him as a Nazi spy.

Windtalkers, made last year but its release held up after Sept. 11, is a perfect movie for the moment, vaguely countercultural but in the end deeply conservative. The white men use the Native Americans’ gifts and casually send them to their deaths—but that small lapse doesn’t get in the way of its rah-rah commitment to killing Japs. The heroes were raised Catholics and came to feel contempt for the church, yet one goes out with Catholic rites on his lips. Woo could end up becoming the John Ford of schmaltz.

The Ya-Yas being a bit yo-yo

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Warner Bros.) is billed in the credits as an “An All Girl Production.” That’s not something I’d want to boast about; this film could set feminism back 20 years. Rebecca Wells’ best seller is about a 40ish theater director, Siddalee Walker, who gives an interview that—in a didn’t-mean-to-but-really-did sort of way—portrays her mother Viv as a drunk and an abuser. Suddenly estranged, Sidda begins to read letters from her mother to three friends (all of them dubbed the Ya-Ya Sisters) and slowly enters a mystical world of women holding one another together through their most wrenching traumas. The book isn’t laden with feminist ire; the men, largely ineffectual, are benign. It might work for many women because it caters to these two antithetical but strangely harmonious ideas: that mothers are their daughters’ mortal enemies; and that mothers and daughters are one, lovingly enfolded in the bosom of the Blessed Mother Nature, which binds all female spirits together.

I’m at a loss to tell you what Callie Khouri’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is about because in fundamental ways it doesn’t exist; it’s two hours of notes for a film with no connecting tissue. It opens with a 1937 Ya-Ya ceremony—with the four young girls affirming their connection to one another and what Camille Paglia would call chthonian nature. And it shows them as 60ish women in the present, played by Ellen Burstyn (as Viv), Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, and Maggie Smith—drinking heavily, joshing, trading bitchy insults. These old girls are delightful, but what’s missing from the movie is the whole center section—the notes and letters and rituals that kept them together when Viv spiraled into depression and drug addiction. Viv is played by Ashley Judd as a young woman, but none of the other Ya-Yas in that time period have any dramatic function, and they barely register.

Most of the film is poor Sandra Bullock as Sidda paging through notebooks and staring soulfully into space. She’s a playwright with her masterpiece opening imminently on Broadway—but she never phones New York from Louisiana, where she’s getting to know her mother’s history, to see how things are going in rehearsal. Women’s actual professional/creative lives, I guess, take a back seat to working it all out with Mom. In the novel, Wells makes a connection between Sidda’s directing career and the experience of watching the Ya-Ya sisters perform musical numbers and wanting to be a part of it. That sounds a little pat, but it’s an example of the kind of psychological undercurrents that Khouri’s movie simply drops: We don’t have any idea what Sidda’s play is even about. The movie doesn’t have any undercurrents, psychological or cinematic. I’m not sure I buy all the mystical feminine animism stuff, but why adapt Divine Secrets of theYa-Ya Sisterhood and shoot it more conventionally than a Lifetime TV movie? The Blessed Mother ends up looking like a drunken housewife.