Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Like any true Hollywood epic, Titanic is long and obscenely costly, bends the truth, and has sweeping vistas and some odd casting choices. What distances it from many other epics, however, is its deft avoidance of much of the sluggishness and dull generalities that often plague similar films. The heavily hyped premise of teenage romance aboard an ocean liner which digitally founders and sinks to a Celine Dion soundtrack may sound like too much for the soul to bear, but Titanic provides an absorbing blend of historical fact and old-fashioned Hollywood tearjerking. A 101-year-old survivor of the disaster (Gloria Stuart), who claims to have once worn the priceless diamond pendant being sought by undersea fortune hunters, recounts her experiences aboard the ship as an upper-class 17-year-old (Kate Winslet) who falls in love with an artist in third-class steerage (Leonardo DiCaprio). At first, it seems cynical that director James Cameron chose to employ a fictional love story as the framing device for this real-life tragedy, but it gives him the excuse to race about the length and breadth of the ship, showing everything from the first-class stateroom to the boilers in meticulous detail, without turning the film into a Titanic Appreciation Society slide show. When the encounter with the iceberg arrives, Cameron imaginatively depicts the initial disbelief and somewhat bemused reaction of the passengers; the sinking and rescue efforts are a hypnotic melange of social injustice, desperate beat-the-clock chases reminiscent of silent-film melodrama, and the awesome vision of the severed stern rising, then taking its final plunge. Titanic is not flawless; the dialogue is often simplistic, when not offering deathless lines like, "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets." As Winslet's arrogant fiancé, Billy Zane never gets beyond the cartoonishly villainous, and David Warner is wasted as a thuggish butler. But these are minor shortcomings. That the familiar story of the Titanic disaster is told with suspense is not as surprising as Cameron's clear-headed balance of truth and fiction, spectacle and tragedy.


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