That Titanic Sinking Feeling: A Movie Review

The tragedy of a death has no exact expiration date as any parent or survivor can tell you. Likewise, tragic deaths on an international scale is an event that can become, in-and-of itself, a being – some thing to be festooned each milestone with wreaths of remembrance; flowers and stories interwoven in the airy base of the human condition. Next week we will be exactly 100 years from just such a tragedy, one that has been turned into a multi-million dollar business for good or ill. This is a story that plays into the hands and hearts of those who refuse to and those who cannot forget. We live for this stuff – nostalgia; our friend who takes us by the hair and drags us into the cul-de-sac of romantic endings. There is room here too for the ironic, the boarding ticket lost equals, in the end, a life saved and the ship that was dubbed unsinkable – did just that – sink.  And while we’re on the subject of sinking ships let’s look at the movie Titanic – again.  I saw this epic disaster twice in 1998. I suppose I provided balance for the scores of others who attended its opening in ’97 and now need permanent resident visas at certain theaters.  I did not understand it then and I don’t get it now.

The reality of me directing a movie is highly unlikely so I do what all people who believe their creativity is unappreciated do – I criticize – or critique, if you will. To be fair, I don’t want to minimize the colossal effort it must take to create a blockbuster movie in which the plot’s climax is well-known history. Just the facts; unsinkable boat sinks drowning 1500.  With this information to work with there’s nothing left to do but get technical. And technical the movie was. The academy award presentation was right on the mark in awarding Titanic the Oscar for the best movie in all the technical areas. I know they did the right thing because my mom cringed months later when speaking of the beautifully monogrammed china crashing to the floor after the ship’s impact with the iceberg. And the replication of the grand staircase was straight out of a young girl’s dream; to stand at the top of such beauty before descending into a crowd of admirers. No,  I am not here to critique perfection. And had I been favored with input on the choice of actors I would not be here putting these words to print. But I wasn’t asked for my choices so I shall critique the casting mistakes of those who were.   I’ll start with Leonardo DiCaprio. He should have won an Oscar for the most valiant (yet failed) attempt at impersonating a fictional character. I think it was the smile. I had to remind myself that the year was 1912 and DiCaprio was cast as a less than high society character.  So I was bothered whenever he flashed that perfect keyboard which smacked of very expensive Beverly Hills orthodontia. I don’t believe people were that model-agency perfect in 1912. A small, brown cavity working its way between any of his front teeth would have been more authentic. I mean he did just win his ticket in a card game for heaven’s sake! And the haircut? Really!  kid DiCaprio swooped, lunged, and spat his way around the world’s largest ship and at every turn I kept expecting him to show up with a surf board over his shoulder looking every inch the truant high schooler shooting the curls (instead of brushing them) at Santa Monica Beach. And I have a problem with the dynamics of this movie – fluid dynamics that is. I am not here to minimize the power of love but there is no way DiCaprio and his love interest could have maneuvered so skillfully through near freezing water. Puhleeze! This was the same North Atlantic Ocean that kept that iceberg intact. In my second viewing the characters seemed to shiver only as an afterthought.  And the dialogue… I could have sworn I heard DiCaprio say “cool.”

Now, Kate Winslet is another story. I liked her style immediately. No pink, Barbie-type doormat this one. Winslet portrayed well the serene woman of substance. While I can’t say much for her taste in fiancées, she did an admirable job of displaying the anguish a young, beautiful woman must feel when confronted with a real Miss Havisham of mothers. I would have given her an Oscar though for at least one scene. It’s the scene where she poses nude for that worldly (he looked all of 13 years old!) artist of distinction with incredible gifts and experience. All this boy’s wincing and squinting at Winslett’s beautiful female form evinced nothing of his fascination for her “…hands…” he says he has. How she remained in character is beyond me. Maybe she got through the scene by visualizing a Cary Grant or Clark Gable in place of this teen heart-throb. In any case, I am sure this is why I have never been asked to star in a movie.  Winslet, the actress, is believable even when she lets this youngster calm her Victorian fears of low-class impropriety. A real woman would have gathered DiCaprio  up with milk and cookies, taken him to bed and tucked him in soundly before kissing his greasy forehead goodnight and going below decks. Yes, below deck, because that’s where all the fun is. Didn’t you know? All the steerage types – those without shoes, proper fitting clothes, and little food – always come with a fiddle or two to dance like River Dance. If I show an unnatural rancor here it’s because my son asked if we would be in first class or steerage if we had sailed on the Titanic?  “We wouldn’t have been on the Titanic honey… you know how dad hates cruise ships.”

The actor, Billy Zane did what he does best. He played the sinister, psychologically frightening, yet oh so attractive man of means. Zane’s best sinister performance though remains with the movie Dead Calm. I felt the director really kept the gloves on my hero, Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown. This character always seemed to be holding back. It was as if she could have run away with many scenes with her shoot from the hip delivery. Here is where I’d like to see the outtakes. And in the lifeboat scene, the Molly Brown of my knowledge was far more urgent – you could say a real pushy broad as she verbally badgered the rowers (all women I thought) to return for survivors. And then there’s Gloria Stewart with her character throwing the blue diamond overboard after all those years!  I have trouble here. The jewel really had nothing to do with her love relationship with the Dawson character. She could have used the proceeds from the sale of the blue diamond to, say, purchase more lifeboats for the next Titanic or (and this is cruel I know) she could have used the money to open the Jack Dawson Acting School. What better way for her to memorialize her (thankfully dead) loved one.  Seriously, to feature such a thin love story within such a technical masterpiece as the Titanic is to minimize the real story – the death of more than 1500 people and the class/monetary barriers that allowed the privilege of life for some and death for others. (It appears the fate of the world’s 99% hasn’t changed much).  What of the mother who soothed her children with lullabies as the unsinkable massive ship tilted them toward certain death? What about the aged couple deciding to end their life together in peaceful non-resistance to the inevitable?  Are these not love stories?  What of the builders of this magnificent ship and that blind faith that a calm North Sea must engender? What about the Titanic’s near miss out of her last port? Another huge ship, (ironically named, the New York) pulled by the suction of the passing Titanic had cables snap  and engines had to be reversed to avoid a collision. Frightening premonitions are also evident in the novel Titan, written years before 1912 but with the unsettling storyline of big ship hits iceberg and sinks without enough lifeboats. There was the chief officer of the real Titanic who wrote a letter to his sister saying, “I still don’t like this ship. I have a [strange] feeling about it.” No kidding.  James Cameron missed incredible foreshadowing opportunities here. I’m just sayin’.

I write this review under the protection of time and distance.  I can tell you now that the pictures of Kid DiCaprio my then 9th grade female students taped on my bulletin board suffered an ugly fate by a few boys who planned to inflict certain pictorial pain. Everyday they waited for the safety of a (relatively) empty room in order to add some odd caricature over each new picture the girls put up. And I was remiss in my instruction of values and morals for I did not lecture them about their behavior. Instead, I ate my lunch and admired DiCaprio’s new look (black eye, fright-wig, hillbilly teeth) and the new moniker – Leonardo Decapitated.  After my lunch I removed all traces of the offensive facelift and waited for the next day’s incarnation.

These girls are now young women and I am sure part of the throng that will watch the Titanic movie in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the sinking. Maybe time is what I need to appreciate the movie Titanic. Maybe I need to see it again if for nothing else to get some pointers on how to survive the next 100 years.