Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Year: 1997
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 83
Writer/Director: James Cameron
Star: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

“Titanic” is proof that there is such a thing as good melodrama and that sentimentality can be deeply affecting when done well. Here is a film filled with tremendous special effects that remains grounded because we believe in its central love story.

Everyone knows the story of the “unsinkable” Titanic, and it has been filmed numerous times at varying levels of quality, ranging from overblown tedium in the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle to gripping realism in “A Night to Remember.” This version begins in the present, with an undersea explorer (Bill Paxton) searching for a fabled blue jewel called, rather obviously, the Heart of the Ocean. They don’t find the jewel, but do discover a charcoal drawing of a nude woman wearing it that is dated the night the ship sank. An elderly woman named Rose (played in the present by Gloria Stuart and by Kate Winslet in flashbacks), claims she is the woman in the photo and offers to tell her story.

Rose boarded the Titanic trapped in a loveless relationship with her fiancé Cal (Billy Zane doing a great tip of the hat to Orson Welles) and, on the night she intended to commit suicide, was saved by a spirited wanderer named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is first-class, Jack is third-class, and yet first they form a friendship that leads to intense passion and romance. Even if you have not seen the film, you are familiar with the sight of Jack and Rose kissing on the front of the ship at sunset, and it is indeed one of the greatest romantic moments in all of film. What surprised me, visiting the film again after a decade, is how beautifully Cameron sets up this moment. One of the best moments in the film is a quiet one, without any of James Horner’s great music or any of the numerous impressive special effects, and that is the moment Jack and Rose discuss her attempted suicide. They dance around each other in their dialogue, Jack unafraid to speak his mind and Rose unsure of how to speak hers after a lifetime of suppressing her voice. Another splendid contrast between their lifestyles comes first when we see Jack attend a dinner in first class (Cal invites him as a “prize” for rescuing Rose) and later when we see Rose dance and drink cheap beer in third class. I cannot underline enough how easy and unforced the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet is here, and how quickly we accept their love despite the class difference between them.

A bit more hazy is the relationship between Cal and Rose. Yes, Cameron establishes early that, from Rose’s perspective, it’s just for the money. And yet, with the way Cal is characterized in the first half of the film, I cannot fathom him being attracted to Rose or choosing her as a mate.

As both a screenwriter and director, Cameron takes great pains to paint around the edges. He fills the screen with great character actors (most notably Kathy Bates as the unsinkable Molly Brown and Victor Garber as the soul-heavy ship designer) that make huge impressions in their few lines so that, when they either die or find salvation in the film’s second half, we feel something.

Structurally, “Titanic” is as close to perfection as any film I have seen. In the frame story, Cameron ingeniously shows us the exact circumstances under which the ship sank in a video Rose watches. Everything he introduces in the present is paid off in the past, and every character, subplot and idea he introduces before the iceberg is struck is paid off dramatically. Moments before the ship finally goes under, Rose suddenly realizes “Jack, this is where we first met!” and you can’t help but getting goosebumps. Yes, some of the dialogue is less than fantastic and a few modern beats (Rose flipping someone the bird) feel out of place, but these are easily forgivable.

For me, the reason the disaster genre (and I’m not reducing “Titanic” to a mere “disaster” movie here because it’s much more than that) remains so viable when done well (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “Airport”) is because after characters encounter the impossible in their everyday lives and then have time to process what is going on and react to their probable deaths in very different, very “human” ways. In the last hour of “Titanic” we see acts of great humanity, but mostly we are shaken by the horrors. The third class is literally locked below deck until they die. The first class lifeboats refuse to return to pick up survivors. It’s sickening, and not only do we wonder how we would act in those situations, but the movie has made us care about these characters as human beings. The fact that not a single character we meet from the third class survives is heartbreaking, as is the fact that unlikable characters Cal and Rose’s mother get away so easily. It’s unfair, and all the more impactful because of it.

Cameron (who was also one of the three editors on the film) is amazingly skillful at making the sinking of the ship both sickening and gorgeous. The first reveal of the sinking ship, seen after an emergency flair is fired off, is beautiful, and the way Cameron comes up with new ways to show the Titanic going down is always inventive. It’s visceral, and the special effects throughout are flawless. In fact, I’d wager that the effects seen here could not be done better today, no matter how much technology has advanced since 1997.

Of course, all that would be moot if we didn’t care about the sinking on a human level. Though “A Night To Remember” is a great film, it lacks a soul thanks to its straightforward presentation. Ultimately, “Titanic” offers us the definitive version of the story because it touches our hearts while offering us plenty of suspense and eye candy that is only underlined by the inevitability of the circumstances.

As the movie draws to a close, the elderly Rose says the line, “He saved me…in every way a person can be saved.” After returning the Heart of the Ocean to the sea, Rose dies quietly in her sleep and we follow her soul down into the ruins of the sunken ship, but we see it anew. All of the dead passengers wait for her, including Jack, who kisses her on the grand staircase. In most other films, that dialogue and finale would be cheesy, but “Titanic” earns them. It’s the rarest of spectacles—an uncynical love story where the grand special effects never outshine the film’s soul.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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