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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Titanic

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
Director: James Cameron
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 194 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genres: Action, Romance, Drama

*Also starring: Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Victor Garber

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Few people under the age of forty have even heard of the legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger, who in his heyday had a tendency to attach Marxist ideology to his strains and ballads. In one of his major melodies, "Titanic," he strums his banjo and intones, "The rich refused to associate with the poor./ So they put the poor below,/ They were the first to go,/ It was sad when the great ship went down." Committed to the left wing even in his insistence on once stating that Franco was a bigger villain than Stalin, Seeger could well be expected to cut one of the world's great disasters with a strong political edge.

What larger point can be made from this insight? Simply this: in converting life to art, visionaries have the power (within reason) to impose their interpretation on events, to highlight those aspects of a true story which they wish to underscore and ignore those which they consider of little relevance to their imagination. What James Cameron did in his smashing direction of "Titanic"--whose screenplay he wrote as well--is to emphasize four angles in his epic work about the fate of the world's most celebrated cruise ship which left Southampton, England, in April of 1912. Foremost is the love story between an upper-class, somewhat spoiled 17-year-old, Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and a lower-caste, self-confident and handsome lad, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jack intuitively senses the girl's rebelliousness, her unhappiness with what she imagines will be a high-society life of endless cotillion balls and inane conversation. His own spirited style becomes the anchor which is hungrily grasped by the despondent young woman. Cameron is obsessed, also, with re-creating much of Titanic's actual dimensions, in effecting a verisimilitude between the vessel of 1912 and the ship designed for him in this film. Given his $200 million budget-- which makes "Titanic" the most expensive movie of all time-- it's no wonder that he is able to hire the original manufacturer of the vessel's carpet, reproducing the actual weave for an audience which would hardly put much concern with such literalness. Thirdly, Cameron nutritiously feeds his public with the disaster spectacle for which it has an insatiable appetite, devoting the final forty percent of the three and one-quarter work on the mayhem which follows the craft's collision with an iceberg. Finally Cameron deals with the political reality; that snobbery and a fairly rigid class structure is alive and well not only in Europe but in America as well. "Titanic" never stops beating up on the tuxedo-clad, corset-imprisoned crowd with the money not only to ride first class but bring along maids, bodyguards and even their favorite paintings to decorate their staterooms. Even in a film a lengthy as this one, fulfilling all four missions is an imposing task, and Cameron rises to the occasion so well that his audience is likely to accept without sardonic laughter even the corniest playing-out of the romance between Winslet's and DiCaprio's characters.

To avoid the structure of a museum piece, Cameron wisely opens his story in the present day, basing the scenario around the actual discovery in 1985 of the body of the boat deep beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean. Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), an American explorer who is not adverse to capitalizing on the riches which may be found within the wreck, is particularly interested in recovering a diamond necklace said to have been owned by Louis XVI allegedly lost in the wreckage. To his dismay he locates not the diamond but a reproduction of the jewelry on a painting around the neck of a nude woman who had posed for a sketch during the ship's maiden voyage. When news of this find hits the airwaves, a 101-year-old woman who claims to be Rose DeWitt Bukater (Gloria Stuart, actually 87) and the owner of the necklace phones Brock expressing her willingness to tell the story of the ill-fated voyage. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter hones in on the wreck which he is videotaping and we are suddenly transformed into the glittering pre-war era of 1912 society as the Southampton-based craft labeled unsinkable takes on passengers from the fabulously rich to the penniless immigrants. The first-class compartment is lavishly appointed and filled with both "new money" and the "old money" types who look down on the upstarts. When Jack Dawson wins a steerage ticket after a lucky hand of poker just minutes before the ship is to leave the dock at midnight, his life becomes so intertwined with that of the lovely but suicidal society girl whose life he saves that he and his Rose become as inseparable as Romeo and Juliet.

Though the dialogue leans far more to the cornball and inane than to the witty and scintillating, and while Cameron is intent on exposing his audience to the most opulent and profuse display of humanity yet recorded, the romance and class struggle portrayed in "Titanic" is, curiously enough, of greater interest than the disaster sequences--which, by the way, have been chronicled in almost real time. Jack and Rose take their time to get to know and love each other, with Rose torn between breaking her engagement to the fabulously rich Cal (Billy Zane) and thrusting aside her humble but relaxed and confident new beau, Jack. Rose's resistance to the penniless artist is overcome in the most predictable way--she bolts from the asinine conversation of her peers to join Jack at a "real" party of indigent immigrants dancing a jig, taking part in hand-wrestling and generally have a rowdy good time for themselves. Her decision to pose in the nude for the talented young man who has been earning his living sketching women through Paris is the key moment of the movie. The chemistry between the two is so palpable, so believable, that we are swept along despite our inclination to dismiss the scenes as so much mawkish folderol. We are willing even to believe that Cal, the man whom Rose's mother Frances (Ruth DeWitt Bukater) has chosen for her daughter because her own wealth had been depleted, can be one hundred percent Edwardian villain. So scheming and snobbish is this Cal that he seems unable to commit a single ethical act throughout the entire film. If he finds himself outmaneuvered for his fiance's love by a member of the hoi polloi he will stop at nothing, planting jewelry on him and claiming robbery, even shooting at him as Jack skips around the deck with his fair maiden. The steerage people are all fun-loving, sincere, authentic: the first class passengers--with the exception of Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) who enjoys being the comic center of the movie--are obnoxious almost to a person.

Even as Titanic hits the fateful iceberg, Cameron takes his time in introducing the tragic nature of the collision. At first, the incident appears minor. Yet like an early-stage cancer that is operable, we are made to believe that the ship is going to sink within two hours and that half of its population will die because the owners, to avoid an appearance of clutter, did not provide a sufficient number of lifeboats.

Film critic David Thomson once said of James Cameron-- known for his off-the-wall sci fi films like "The Spawning," "Aliens," and "Terminator 2" that "no one did so much to redeem the eighties genre of high-tech threat through the overlay of genuine human interest stories." Even given the awe-inspiring technology that treats us to the mayhem on board as the water seeps, then flows dramatically into each compartment, Cameron does not smother his interesting, romantic story with effects and apparatus. "Titanic" is as likely as not to sweep the Oscars, given the love of the Academy for movies of epic grandeur. It is perhaps the best example in 1997 of a film which is pure, simple melodrama, the sort which many Hollywood producers steer clear of because of their perception that a modern audience will hoot and holler at the screen, and yet one which works on us by achieving an end-run around our intellectual defenses.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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