The basic story had been told earlier in other films and television projects, but even though it matches a fictional romance to facts of the ocean disaster, the Oscar-winning 1997 version of “Titanic” is the definitive one for many people.
Filling CBS’ entire primetime schedule Sunday, May 24, writer-director James Cameron’s epic is a beautifully structured saga the cleverly takes the audience from contemporary times — as a treasure hunter (Bill Paxton) and his colleagues scour the ship’s sunken wreckage — back to its maiden voyage in 1912, as it’s launched with much pomp and circumstance.
Various passengers are introduced, including the allegedly “unsinkable” Molly Brown (played here by Kathy Bates), but two key characters are the ones who came to matter most to the vast majority of moviegoers: privileged Rose and stowaway Jack, roles that elevated the highly charismatic-together Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio to superstardom. (Their later reteaming in “Revolutionary Road” surely was a bid to benefit from their iconic teamwork here, good as they also were in that picture.)
From evading Rose’s spurned and vengeful fiance Cal (Billy Zane) to navigating blocked and/or flooded passageways, the couple’s experience aboard the Titanic turns into an endless series of perils … ultimately enhancing and fusing their affection for each other, to the point where the legendary phrase “I’ll never let go” is much more than mere lip service.
For as personal as the Jack-and-Rose story is, the production that surrounds them is massive and impressive, certainly justifying the 11 Academy Award wins that included best picture and best director (and making for what was one of the highest-rated Oscar telecasts to date, since so many observers were invested in how the movie fared in that ceremony). Cameron united Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox together to finance the project, and the result is stunning visually, particularly in scenes of the ocean liner in its final throes.
A warning for fans of the hugely popular “Titanic” theme song “My Heart Will Go On,” composed by James Horner and Will Jennings, and performed by Celine Dion: It plays only over the closing credits … which typically are obliterated on broadcast television by ads for other shows, so unless CBS gets really generous, you may have to seek it elsewhere if you need your fill of it at the film’s end.
More than two decades after its release, “Titanic” remains a singular screen experience, the type that always will have a large and loyal base of devotees. Despite the many TV showings it’s had, such viewership potential undoubtedly gives CBS confidence in turning over a whole night to it.