After first seeing Titanic, you will not be talking about its blown-out budget or its lengthy duration, but of its monumental emotional power, as big as the engines of the ship itself, as purposeful as its giant propellers to gouge into your heart, and as lasting as the love story which propels it. You may think of it at first as a good ol’ disaster movie, but there is no terrorist threatening with bombs, nor a natural disaster to wreck havoc. The villain here is our own arrogance, shortsightedness and infirmity. James Cameron pens a warm and turbulent romance that is tossed into the calm, but icy seas of the North Atlantic. Our prior knowledge that Titanic sinks, creates a special context from the opening spellbinding shots; a knowledge that plays a salient role in this mesmerizing classic.
Dramatically well balanced, our anticipations are consistently held in check with many surprises and what some call Hollywood’s greatest love story. Titanic’s unyielding punch is delivered so fiercely, not even Jake Lamotta’s chin could withstand its power; we don’t just see the setting and the people, we can feel it, we can feel the various passengers reactions, and we can feel the intense drama and the poetic, lyrical love story. To put it simply, this is masterful cinema. Undoubtedly James Cameron’s magnum opus. A film that carries you (unless you are a die-hard cynic with a nonexistent heart) and involves you from the card game where Jack wins the opportunity of a lifetime, to the heartfelt ending of a grandiose ship’s ultimate demise.
Titanic is a hybrid of history and fantasy. Many key players on-board are indeed based on real-life characters – including the ship’s captain (Bernard Hill), and much of what we see on screen is painstakingly reconstructed from the original disaster that shocked the world on that April morning in 1912.
The very essence of the film’s dramatic narrative arc is a Romeo and Juliet-style forbidden romance (Which I’ll admit, I have continually been a sucker for. West Side Story is on my list of Top 10 Greatest Films). Our fictional star-crossed lovers are Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and society girl, soon-to-be-wed Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet). Keeping with the spirit of their characters, both actors were young and vehemently hungry at the time. The pre-”Leo mania” DiCaprio was just 22, while Winslet, who lobbied Cameron relentlessly for the role- was only 21. Very much like the voyage itself, their lives would forever change after the film’s massive success.
Supporting the two fresh-faced leads, Billy Zane (Rose’s detestable fiancé Cal Hockley) offers a significant dose of melodrama to lighten proceedings. Complete with an absurdly stiff helmet of fake hair, Zane’s over-the-top delivery aims Hockley more as a Cruella De Vil (Disney reference! 101 Dalmatians) of the Atlantic than a savvy aristocrat: Hockley is a sophisticated east-coast Ivy League brat who foolishly believes he can get whatever he wants. Jack’s inspiring spirit of adventure proves him wrong, of course, offering Rose an escape below deck to another, more ebullient world, far from the triviality of her own bland life.
DiCaprio as Jack is boyishly clean-cut. As mentioned earlier, the charming young lad wins a ticket for the ship’s maiden trip during a boozy game of poker, no less, but given his previous success (captivating Claire Daines in Baz Luhrmann’s, Romeo & Juliet…go figure), it’s not surprising he landed the gig. As an audience we have come to see on many occasions just how great DiCaprio is at playing a lovable rogue.
Winslet, as well, is utterly delightful and shines throughout as the initially stuck-up Rose. Her stirring, eloquent performance as a young woman who fights free of the shackles of class to a more unconstrained livelihood will never be forgotten. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, she disrobes for Jack, so he can do her portrait – actually etched by Cameron- here, the intimacy is majestic, as the excitement of Jack Dawson is soaringly palpable. (Winslet did indeed don her birthday suit for the film).
Other notable characters that remain fixated with Titanic’s legacy are the fiery Molly Brown played by Kathy Bates, and 80-year old Gloria Stuart as the old Rose, seen in the contemporary parts of the film. The music James Horner composes is as haunting as it is brilliant, aided with sharp cinematography, stringent editing and extraordinary special effects. All of which have attributed to this movie standing the test of time.
Yes, there were, and still are critics that have poked holes in the dialogue, scoffed at the rather cliché love story, and pointed out several breaches of the on-board etiquette. But, even with those who couldn’t help their own cynicism, James Cameron’s epic still won 11 Academy Awards (at the time tying only Ben-Hur) and became the first movie to break the billion-dollar barrier.
This 20 year old masterpiece is the only American film that rivals Gone With The Wind for both swoonery and production value. Extravagant, exhilarating, devastating, poetic, romantic and totally indelible, Titanic is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, where technology astounds, yet the human story somehow shines even brighter.
By Brandon Colón