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Film Review: James Cameron’s “Titanic,” 15 years later

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star in James Cameron's "Titanic." Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

“Titanic” (1997)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Gloria Stuart
Grade: A 

In crafting his 1997 blockbuster masterpiece “Titanic,” writer-director James Cameron could have taken what one might call the History Channel approach, wherein historical accuracy and anecdotes reign. That method would have undoubtedly sufficed for many, given the drama inherent in Titanic’s sinking. And, in a sense, Cameron did craft that film. With a few liberties taken, “Titanic” contains a recreation of the events of April 1912 stunning in its precision. This, however, comprises only the film’s thematic backdrop, an active set piece fraught with metaphor.

“Titanic’s” primary storytelling concern lies not with a ship, but with Rose (Gloria Stuart and Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Their story is a love story, but to leave that phrase unqualified is both negligent and deceptive. “Titanic” is, more exactly, a teenage love story at once specific in detail and universal in theme.

The film opens as a group of men explores Titanic’s underwater remains with the hope of locating a valuable diamond necklace (“The Heart of the Ocean”) understood to have “gone down with the ship.” This expedition, though unattractive in its financial orientation, is portrayed with only minor criticism embedded. Rather, the scenes aboard the team’s exploratory vessels capture the inevitable detachment characteristic of contemporary perspectives of tragedies past. It’s a phenomenon already observable in our treatment of the 9/11 attacks. The rawness dissipates, topics initially taboo work their way into conversation, and the tragic events are eventually mined artistically and commercially. In the case of “Titanic,” the ship’s artifacts are at first treated with a respect that’s clinical rather than emotional. Expedition leader Brock Lovett, portrayed as an everyman with just the right amount of sleaze by Bill Paxton, isn’t a monster, but his initial interest in Titanic, unlike Cameron’s, is pragmatic.

The story’s pathos arrives in the form of 100 year-old Titanic survivor Rose Calvert (Stuart). Rose flies to Lovett’s mid-Atlantic salvage ship after disclosing that she was once in possession of the necklace Lovett seeks. In narrating Rose’s story, Stuart’s performance offers a blend of spryness and seasoned melancholy. She has a spark and wit consistent with the 17 year-old Rose (Winslet) we’ll soon meet, but with an added wisdom and assurance. The performance conveys decades’ worth of information regarding the character’s evolution in minutes of screen time. Through extended flashbacks we meet Rose when she was Rose DeWitt Bukater, a beautiful high-society teen engaged to marry the wealthy Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane). The engagement is forced but the root of Rose’s melancholy extends beyond her impending marriage. She’s repulsed by the luxury surrounding her, yet smart enough to recognize her own reliance on it.

Jack, on the other hand, is introduced winning third class tickets to board Titanic in a game of poker, just minutes before the ship is to leave its Southampton port. A handsome, carefree nomad, Jack’s not necessarily flawless, but Cameron isn’t at all concerned if you, like Rose, view him as such. The two meet in a most immoderate scenario: Jack finds Rose attempting suicide on Titanic’s stern and talks her down, so to speak.

There are many reasons why such broad strokes work in “Titanic” and not, say, “Avatar,” Cameron’s follow-up film. I noted earlier that “Titanic” is not just a love story but a teenage love story–one that takes place on an enormous, sinking metaphor. There’s nuance to be found in teen romance, but nuance isn’t what teen romance, nor “Titanic,” is about. Cameron takes the extremes inherent in his subject matter and makes them tangible. To Rose and Jack, each other is the source of all things good, any obstacles to their romance are villains, and the prospect of love’s end is not just sad, but tragic.

It’s a portrayal that could veer into condescension, but Cameron steers his film far in the opposite direction. Perhaps obvious in his decision to craft a three-hour epic about teenage romance is Cameron’s respect for the subject matter. In many ways, “Titanic” exists as an ode to the earnestness and raw strength of youthful emotion. Despite its refreshing lack of cynicism, however, the film is hardly naive. The implication is clear throughout that Rose and Jack, as a couple, were never meant for land. As viewers, we aren’t to feel disappointed that Rose Calvert, not Rose Dawson, narrates.

In drawing these characterizations, Cameron shows a gift for transforming types into people. Rose and Jack may have roots in centuries-old stock characters, but their gender roles, for instance, are commendably nontraditional and it’s no accident that the young lovers occasionally come across as modern American teenagers. In the case of Rose’s fiancée, the character fills the villain’s role to the extent required of Cameron’s vision without actually being a villain. Rather, he’s portrayed as a product of his upbringing, a man with every reason to assume his fiancé will play by society’s rules. That he’s violently undone by Rose’s insubordination isn’t attractive, but it’s understandable. Thus, Cameron has followed a rule essential to any compelling soap opera–beneath his exaggerations lies something recognizably human.

As the “Titanic’s” leads, Winslet and DiCaprio, both fresh faced and beautiful, fully embrace the earnest intelligence of Cameron’s screenplay. If either of them hoped for edgier material (as their future career choices would suggest), you can’t tell it from their spirited performances here. As Rose, Winslet offers a fresh blend of vulnerability and rambunctiousness. One gets the sense that she doesn’t care how a romantic female lead is supposed to carry herself, making her “Titanic’s” most distinctive asset. DiCaprio, on the other hand, displays a levity in “Titanic” sorely missing from his more recent work. Watching the film today, DiCaprio’s Oscar snub seems all the more misguided. He thoroughly inhabits Jack Dawson without a crutch in sight. Playing the character straight, so to speak, was as daring an acting decision as any, yet it’s also the reason the performance has been overlooked. The supporting cast is equally deserving of praise. Stuart is the standout, but there’s not a weak link in the bunch.

I’ve discussed the thematic purpose served by Cameron’s heavy-handedness, but purpose doesn’t make his dialogue easy to sell. His lines are corny by design–the work of an artist acknowledging his limitations and using them to his benefit–and Winslet, DiCaprio and company seem entirely at ease with this. They take Cameron’s dialogue and infuse it with emotion as authentic as the lines are cheesy. The moment when Jack shouts gleefully from the front of the ship (“I’m the king of the world!”), for instance, really shouldn’t work, but DiCaprio conjured the requisite amount of boyish sincerity to make the line iconic.

Dialogue aside, Cameron’s screenplay is an exemplar of pacing done well. He devotes the exact amount of time to the protagonists’ courtship necessary to solidify their relationship by the time the movie turns into a veritable action film. Furthermore, Cameron strategically distributes his characters across the ship as it begins to founder and devises organic reasons for keeping them aboard for as long as possible, allowing us to fully experience the ins and outs of the disaster in what feels like real time. Lest the action become monotonous, the screenplay calls for appropriately timed moments of intimacy, be they on the ship or in a return to the present day.

This brings me to the film’s visual effects, which have survived exceptionally, holding their own against those of films made 15 years later. The sinking is, of course, the standout effects sequence–a flawless rendering that’s truly immersive. No less masterful, however, is the use of effects in the film’s first half. You never question the notion that this is taking place on an enormous ship streaming across the Atlantic.

Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is comparably stunning. A film this varied in tone and pacing requires a vast range of skills and Carpenter nails everything from sweeping longshots to intimate close-ups. His compositions are thought-provoking and rarely expected. James Horner’s score similarly serves Cameron’s vision while standing on its own as a successful piece—his fusion of vocals with instruments haunts throughout “Titanic.”

Under Cameron’s direction, every aspect of the film works toward a shared, singular goal. Nothing feels superfluous; this is as carefully controlled and economical as three-hour films get. Yet the terms “controlled” and “economical” don’t do justice to “Titanic’s” emotional core–none of this would work if the right feelings weren’t present. The final scene serves as a testament to this. Having established his credibility and then some, Cameron abandons logic and offers viewers a necessary aesthetic closure. It’s a moment of beautiful emotional insight incumbent of Cameron as an artist if not a storyteller.

Fifteen years since its release, “Titanic” has only improved with age. The themes Cameron tackles are as potent, if not more so, today. His observations about the economy and tragedy are eerily prescient in a pre-recession, pre-9/11 film and the sincerity of his take on teenage romance feels all the more necessary in 2012. “Titanic” will continue to endure as a work of art for as long as its contents hold true for audiences; at the 15-year mark, Cameron’s epic is surviving marvelously.

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