Titanic isn’t my favorite movie, and I don’t think there’s much of a case for it being more profound than Citizen Kane or more thrilling than Vertigo. It’s certainly not as funny as the Marx Brothers at their best. Its special effects were groundbreaking, but it wasn’t the game-changer that Star Wars was; nor will it ever be as iconic as Casablanca. Answer this, though—and be honest. Is there any movie since The Wizard of Oz that’s been so…well, perfect?
Here’s the thing about James Cameron’s 1997 epic: it does absolutely everything it tries to do, exactly as well as it tries to do it. Specifically, it imagines a human story to illuminate one of the 20th century’s most compelling historical moments, and it succeeds beyond all reason.
Consider how many, many, many movies try to pull off historical drama and either fall flat on their faces (Gettysburg) or look great but bore the hell out of you (Barry Lyndon) or succeed, but age poorly (Braveheart). Even Dances With Wolves, wildly successful and acclaimed in its time, for most of Gen Y has degenerated to a series of gags (“Tatonka! Tatonka!”). Titanic, though, just looks better and better. It still makes you gasp, it still makes you cry, it’s still loved by swooning 12-year-olds and almost everyone who ever was one.
For various reasons, I’ve seen Titanic several times over the past couple of years, and every time, I’m more and more amazed by how I find myself glued to the screen—even though I’ve known since 1997 how it ends and we’ve all known since 1912 how it ends ends. As Cameron, who wrote the film himself, conducts his cast through their predictable but still charming and entertaining paces, he creates a spellbinding sense of weight as things are set up to go wrong, then actually go wrong, then get about as wrong as things can get.
The film’s pacing is precisely right, one shot folding into the next in just the right progression. Cameron doesn’t have the lifelong gift for character and emotion that Steven Spielberg has, but even Spielberg has never sustained Titanic‘s exquisite balance for such a long span of film. Cameron sympathetically sketches characters so quickly that we feel we’ve known them forever, and when their lives are endangered, we care—even if we’ve seen them die dozens of times already.
What makes Titanic such a pure example of moviemaking done right is the fact that Cameron’s approach is perfectly calibrated to his subject. Lots of filmmakers prolong their characters’ agonies, with varying degrees of success, but in Titanic, Cameron dramatizes a very real-life, very cinematic disaster that just happens to have unfolded over a span of time that was just about the length of a feature film. Cameron establishes the ship’s features and terrain through well-planned establishing scenes, then turns around and reaps the rewards of our familiarity when he shows us how all the best-laid plans ultimately backfired.
The wreck of the Titanic was full of unsubtle class inequities, and it’s just as well that Cameron doesn’t try to treat them subtly. The rich sneer at the poor, and the poor suffer nobly. In any other movie, that approach could easily have led to a boring obviousness, but when disaster strikes, we watch in horror as rich and poor play out their class struggle with lives on the line. Before (well, almost before) we have time to start yawning at Cameron’s hoary class and ethnic stereotypes,the characters are being ground against an inevitable tragedy.
Even the film’s riskiest gamble, the framing device with the old lady and the diamond, works—thanks to the invaluable Gloria Stuart and to Cameron’s skill at contrasting her horrific memories with the glibness of modern explorers who were born long after the ship had sank. Never mind how credible or incredible the scenario is, it lends the film substance by underlining the fact that Titanic tells a true story about actual people who died in an extremely picturesque and extremely sad event.
I haven’t said anything yet about Kate and Leo, because…what need be said? The casting was as exactly right as just about everything else regarding Titanic. Winslet and DiCaprio both somehow pull off the feat of feeling earthy while looking totally gorgeous, and they work so damn well together that a moment like the bow-point trust thrust became instantly iconic. It could have been ridiculous, but the music and the cinematography tell us it’s profound and thrilling, and Cameron has us so firmly in his grip that we helplessly surrender to the magic of this cheesy, heavy-handed, completely obvious and absolutely perfect movie.