It’s hard to say what was crazier: spending $200 million on a period love story with a downer ending or the backlash that started a few nano-seconds after the film cleaned up at the Academy Awards. Make no mistake, L.A. Confidential was the superior picture that got robbed of the Best Picture statue, but snubbing a superior, less commercial film has become sort of an Oscar tradition in recent years.
Just because Confidential was the better movie doesn’t mean Titanic sucked, not by a long shot. James Cameron’s epic no more deserves the constant elitist sneering and sniping it has received any more than it deserved the Best Picture award.
When Titanic works, it works brilliantly and when it gets sidetracked by its somewhat silly plot, it’s still decent melodrama. At its best, the movie recreates the experience of sailing aboard the doomed ocean liner in vivid detail and recreates her death throes even more vividly. The special effect shots of the ship in port and at sea are almost seamless, except when the computer-generated people don’t quite uphold the illusion of reality.
The love story that Cameron sets against this backdrop actually works quite well when it focuses on the film’s two appealing leads, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet). It only degrades into silly melodrama when Billy Zane and David Warner appear on screen to twirl their mustaches. I think there was (and is) a tendency to dismiss the two leads as pretty faces for the teen market, but this forgets a key fact. Both actors were known at the time for taking challenging, unconventional roles (and have continued that career path since). Before Titanic, DiCaprio was best known for off-center films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Basketball Diaries. Winslet had been seen in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and Kenneth Branagh’s epic version of Hamlet. Director James Cameron no doubt cast them in this film because he knew it would need some very strong shoulders to carry it.
The supporting cast is pretty solid, even if Kathy Bates as Molly Brown is the only one who makes a really strong impression that stays with you after you left the theater. Bill Paxton is also good but his character is a fairly standard Bill Paxton role. It was as if Fred Haise from Apollo 13 had given up flying in space to search for shipwrecks.
If you get right down to it, the whole framing story about the present-day wreck hunters could have been jettisoned completely without harming the film at all. We would have lost a touching performance by Gloria Stuart as the 101-year-old Rose, but overall the three-hour movie would have been better off without the 30 or so minutes that sub-plot tacked onto it.
The recreation of the sinking, the heart of this film, is a special effects tour de force. From the flooding corridors inside the ship to those hanging for dear life from the fantail, Titanic creates a sense of chaotic and kinetic action and palpable terror. The shot of the stern of the ship breaking off and falling toward the people in the water has a real emotional impact when you see it for the first time.
So, based on the pure audacity of tackling such a project, the technical mastery of its execution and the appeal of its two talented leads, Titanic more than overcomes any minor deficiencies in its storytelling.