Titanic (1997) – Directed by James Cameron – Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, David Warner, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Michael Ensign, Eric Braeden, Ewan Stewart, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, and Ioan Gruffudd.
TITANIC is why Hollywood exists.
Epic, breathtaking, overblown, and yet achingly small when it needs to be, TITANIC is both an emotional and technical masterpiece. James Cameron’s film is the grandest of cinematic spectacles, artfully blending romance and tragedy in such a way that makes the smallest and largest moments resonate with a deep emotional power. TITANIC is not a complex story, yet the simplicity of the trapped rich girl and hopeful poor boy falling in love aboard the world’s most famous ship makes their love story even grander as it is set in the context of the legendary disaster that awaits the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean.
I fully and readily admit that I am utterly in the bag for this movie. Even when it was released back in 1997 and I was in full-blown elitist snark, “everything sucks” mode I was moved by this very simple, yet sweeping love story set aboard a massive spectacle. For me, James Cameron has only made two masterpieces, and this is one of them. (Aliens is the other.) Perhaps because these characters are so simple and set against such an important historical moment, they gain a timeless quality that sustains this movie.
Cameron’s style of directing TITANIC is to continually contrast the smallness of people with the grandness of the ship, or the importance of a small moment in the context of the ship’s sinking, and in doing so he elevates the cinematic impact of both. For the people aboard the vessel, every emotion they have takes on greater importance, while the ship itself is constantly represented as a massive leviathan, complete with towering stacks and endless labyrinthine corridors.
What works most for me about TITANIC is that Cameron is constantly offering us these intimate moments between characters, and that continually drives home the idea to embrace every moment of your life because (clumsy Cameron metaphor coming in 3 … 2 …) you never know when you’re going to run into an iceberg and run out of the possibility of moments.
There’s all sorts of intimate moments here, however, that touch me emotionally. It’s not always the romantic moments between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), either. There’s a whole passenger list full of moments:
It’s Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), the Titanic‘s shipbuilder, standing alone in front of a clock in the first class smoking room as his ship – his ship – is falling apart and sinking. His lament to Rose that, “I’m sorry I couldn’t build you a better ship,” reveals that he’s putting the weight of this entire disaster on his own shoulders.
It’s Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), so full of vinegar throughout the film, being deflated by the unwillingness of anyone else in her lifeboat to go back and look for survivors.
It’s the old couple holding each other in bed as water is swamping the ship.
And the moment that, for some reason, hits me hardest: at the end of the film, when Rose is standing alone on the deck of the Carpathia and Cameron gives us a perspective shot looking up at the towering Statue of Liberty. Why this moment resonates stronger than the other moments in the film is nothing I’ve ever really been able to explain. I think it has something to do with the promise embodied in that Statue of America being the land of new beginnings. From Rose’s perspective, this is a return to the United States for Rose, but it’s not with the sense of entrapment she felt at the start of the voyage. Where she was saddened and crushed by being able to see her whole life as Cal’s wife laid out before her, she now has complete freedom to live whatever life she chooses to live. Lady Liberty is once again a beacon of possibility instead of oppression. There’s a stoic strength to the Statue, too, and Cameron uses the brief appearance to symbolize hope, strength, new beginnings, and safety.
Is TITANIC a manipulative story?
Damn straight it is, but isn’t that why we go to the movies … to be manipulated? Don’t hate because Cameron writes that manipulation large. The same goes for the film’s adherence to history – I don’t need my movies to be 100% historically accurate (though it’s nice if they are), so Cameron’s altered depiction of Molly Brown is unfortunate, but not a deal breaker. What I want is for movies to be 100% engaging, and TITANIC is definitely that.
Cameron contrasts the tragedy of the ship’s narrative with the uplift of the love story. We know the ship is going to eventually sink and we know Jack and Rose are going to fall in love, and the two arcs intersect each other at the moment the Titanic hits the iceberg and ruptures its hull. Both DiCaprio and Winslet are fantastic throughout the film. Cameron writes simple characters, of course, but again, I think this ends up being to the film’s advantage, as Cameron encourages you to experience this movie instead of thinking about it. Simple characters work in TITANIC for me because I want to believe in Jack and Rose’s story. I do not want to dwell on the possibility that Jack is some kind of confidence man, and Cameron doesn’t, though he allows the other characters in the film to take advantage of Jack’s lower class to exploit this possibility in the mind of others.
Cameron frames his movie through the lens of Gloria Stuart as Old Rose. Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) is a deep sea treasure hunter on the trail of the Heart of the Ocean. He doesn’t find it, but he does uncover a nude drawing of a woman wearing the Heart of the Ocean. Back in the States, Old Rose is living with her granddaughter (Suzy Amis), sees the report, and contacts Brock’s expedition, who fly her out to question her about the diamond’s whereabouts.
While Brock and his crew are unemotional treasure hunters, but they become sucked in to Rose’s story. (Again, Cameron’s penchant for simple characters works to his benefit here, in part because of the story and in part because he’s hired actors like Bill Paxton who can convincingly portray simple characters and still make them seem like real people.) Occasionally, throughout the film, Cameron cuts back to Old Rose telling the story to the crew and I know this is a small, obvious thing to do, but it really works for me to see these cynical guys drawn completely into this old woman’s story.
TITANIC does play a bit loose with Rose’s story. Either what we’re watching is literally her version of events, in which case she’s filling in details that she couldn’t possibly know about (like what was going on in scenes where she wasn’t present), or we’re watching what actually happened, and getting more information than Brock’s expedition.
When the film ends, Brock tells Rose’s granddaughter that he’s spent three years thinking of nothing but Titanic, but he never understood until he heard Old Rose’s story. It’s a powerful moment, delivered in a wonderfully understated manner by Paxton, and speaks to why it’s critically important that personal stories of historical tragedies are told. Life is more than an accumulation of facts and dates and figures and TITANIC brings that home. Yeah, it’s a made-up love story set in the middle of a true tragedy, and yeah, Cameron is more interested in emotional truth than historical truth, but I’m okay with that.
TITANIC is a big, powerful, Hollywood love story, and I love every frame of it. In the final scene, when Old Rose dies or dreams her way back down to the sunken Titanic beneath them to find all of the dead waiting for her, and then applaud her return and reunion with Jack, it stands as a powerful moment of a life well lived, and celebrates that most sacred human connection: