Last night, my husband and I watched the film "Windtalkers" on the History Channel. It is a fictionalized account of young Navajo men who were trained in the one World War II code the Japanese never figured out. After the Japanese cracked code after code after code, the Americans came up with a double code: have Navajo code talkers speak in code words that are also in the Navajo language. Anyone who wanted to break the code would not only have to figure out what the code words referred to but also translate them first from Navajo. About four hundred Navajo code talkers played a crucial part in the success of numerous battles in the Pacific.
The film was a great way to draw attention to a facet of World War II history that I doubt is widely known and to bring much deserved honor to the Navajo people for their compatriots' work. I particularly appreciated the battle scenes that illustrated why being able to communicate in code was so crucial for winning battles and saving lives.
On the negative side, as film critic Leah Rozen observed during her televised commentary, the film focused too much on the main hero, played by Nicholas Cage. The movie would have been more interesting if the central Navajo character (Ben Yahzee, played by Adam Beach) had been the protagonist. The movie seemed to fall into the Atticus Finch syndrome -- the syndrome of telling the story about a minority people from the point of view of a white hero. This movie is an even more egregious example of the Atticus Finch syndrome than "To Kill a Mocking bird." "Windtalkers" presents itself as a movie that is primarily about celebrating the Navajo, whereas "To Kill a Mockingbird" is about a lot of other things besides the unjust persecution of a black man.
The other problem with the movie was its central source of dramatic tension. The premise was that the Nicholas Cage character had orders to kill Ben Yahzee if he was in danger of falling into enemy hands in order to prevent him from being tortured into revealing the Navajo code to the Japanese. For the first part of the movie, however, Yahzee believed that Nicholas Cage was only there to protect him. The problem is that the alleged order to kill the Navajo code talkers in the event of their capture has no basis in historical fact, according to the commentary that accompanied the movie. It was merely a dramatic device the filmmakers invented.
This is most unfortunate. I am a firm believer that even fictionalized accounts of historical events should not include facts that are known to be historically false, much less make such falsities the focal point of the story. While I imagine that racism was a real part of the Navajo code talkers' experience in the military, it was simply not true that there was as little value placed on their lives and their services as the plot of the film would suggest. I love dramatized and fictionalized accounts of history, but historical accuracy can yield just as compelling a story without resorting to cheap made-up facts.
All in all, I am glad I saw this movie because the underlying historical reality is so compelling. But Leah Rozen summed up my feelings when she said that she was left the movie wishing she had seen the documentary instead.