The Patriot

USA, 2000. Rated R. 164 minutes.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tchéky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin
Writer: Robert Rodat
Music: John Williams
Cinematographer: Caleb Deschanel
Producer(s): Dean Devlin, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn
Director: Roland Emmerich


Grade: B- Review by Dana Knowles

A nyone in fear of encountering a lengthy history lesson or complex political lecture from The Patriot can relax. It's just a movie. And anybody hoping for an incisive portrait of American Colonial life being disrupted by the terrors of revolutionary war can forget it. It's just a movie. In fact, The Patriot is the most "just a movie" movie I've seen in a very long time. Light (very light) on insight, and heavy (very heavy) on melodramatic cliché, it's a textbook example of glossy hokum. Gorgeously shot and lavishly appointed with period detail, this movie is all dressed up with nowhere to go–unless you believe going through the motions is the same thing as getting somewhere. Judging from the earnestness of the film's tone and performances, the quality of the production on a technical level, and the John Williams music that underlines its emotional sweep, director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) does believe they're the same thing. Will the depth of his conviction be enough to sway you? Probably not. But it may be enough to entertain you, especially if you have a healthy appetite for cheese.

The Patriot begins with a confessional voiceover, indicating that our protagonist, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), has skeletons doing the Funky Chicken inside the figurative closet that houses his past. Haunted by his long-ago military experience (which is the stuff of local legend), he's a lonely widower and dedicated father of seven who just wants to live a simple life as a simple farmer on his simple South Carolina plantation (sans slaves, of course... he's our hero!). His eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) is hankering to join up and fight the Brits for autonomy, but Ben disapproves. In what stands as the totality of the political content provided, Ben addresses the State Assembly and voices his concerns. Yes, he resents "taxation without representation"... but no, he doesn't think war against England is a good idea. (Apparently, this whole revolutionary thing really did boil down to a fourth-grade history lesson catchphrase!) The Assembly votes to go to war anyway, though a bit apologetically, as if they seem to recognize that Mel is the star of the movie, and thus feel bad about not voting his way.

Gabriel signs up and disappears into the war for a couple of years, during which time he is devastated to learn that people die in combat. While he's away, we're introduced to the rest of the Martin brood, which includes a young daughter who refuses to speak. It's implied that her silence is related to the absence of her mother, but we all know that it's really her way of securing a juicy, treacly scene later in the movie. As the war progresses and moves southward, Gabriel returns home just ahead of the oncoming Brits. Ben allows wounded colonialist militia men to recuperate on his front lawn, which engenders the wrath of a British Colonel by the name of William "Snidely" Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Okay... he's not really called "Snidely", but he might as well have been. All he lacks is a moustache to twirl. Tavington orders the execution of the wounded militia men, the arrest of Gabriel, and the decimation of the Martin home and plantation. This causes familial anguish, which erupts in a bit of misguided bravado by one of the children, followed by a very unsavory outcome.Mel Gibson in The Patriot Tavington chortles and sneers while Ben grieves for his dying child, effectively sealing a revenge pact that will be the basis for the rest of the movie.

Ben's first act of vengeance is a doozy, though. He stages an ambush that wipes out twenty Redcoats while freeing Gabriel from custody, which is a nifty trick, considering that his only assistance comes from two pre-adolescent sons that he's armed with rifles. Fortunately, their marksmanship is akin to that of Lee Harvey Oswald, probably because of the wisdom imparted by dad before the shooting begins, which is something on the order of "aim small, miss small." Whatever that means, it works! After liberating Gabriel and exhibiting some unsettling blood-lust, Ben deposits his younger children into the care of his wife's sister, Charlotte (Joely Richardson), who makes it absolutely clear with every longing gaze in his direction that she's hot for him. Fortunately, Ben's feelings–and longing gazes–appear to be mutual. But there's a war to be fought, so lust will just have to wait. Ben and Gabriel head off to volunteer for the militia, where father is made a Colonel and son is assigned to his unit. The militia is severely outmanned, of course, but we're told that there's hope because the French are on their way to assist the rebel effort, though it may take many months for them to arrive. In the meantime, one of them is already hanging around and pitching in, which we know because he wears a Napoleon hat and speaks the occasional sentence with a heaVEE acCENT. ¡Sacre bleu!

Ben and Gabriel set off to roam the countryside in search of new recruits. In the course of their travels, they witness a lost-cause traditional field battle that inspires Ben to invent and advocate ambush-style guerrilla tactics as a substitute for ordinary battle against the better-equipped and better-manned Brits. So that's where the idea came from! Who knew? Still on their recruiting mission, Gabriel wanders into a town meeting to pitch rebellion to the menfolk, and is doubly-blessed when his hunky good looks move a young beauty to stand up and give a rousing speech that shames the reluctant citizens into joining up. In one fell swoop, he's gained a passel of soldiers and a love interest. At the same time, the audience has gained some key supporting characters and a bunch of plot points that will pay off later. Ben's recruiting trip to a saloon is similarly ripe with supporting players and plot points, which means that the battle can finally begin!

The Patriot is by no means a disgraceful movie, but it is the kind of movie that drops in every detail with such a resounding thud that you can anticipate the last-act echoes as soon as they're set up. If a redneck racist grudgingly fights alongside a black man who's hoping to earn his freedom from slavery, how long will it take for the slave to save the racist and prove himself worthy of respect? About three reels. If a child with distinctive features is introduced, how long will it take for us to stumble upon a child's dead body... and easily identify him because of those distinctive features? About three reels. If our hero vows personal revenge against the villain, what are the odds that the villain is actually dead from a confrontation with someone other than our hero? Zip. The story is so unrelievedly heavy-handed and predictable that you're forced to choose to either go with it or gag on it. The one pleasant surprise is this: if you go with it, it's fairly entertaining, if only because playing guess the next cliché can be a heap of fun.

There is a lot to admire in the execution, however. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is exquisite, making particularly magnificent use of one awesome location after another. (Too bad there's no Oscar for Location Scout, because the folks responsible for finding so many aesthetic marvels would be shoo-ins.) Emmerich does a fine job of staging the shots, but his efforts are undermined by Robert Rodat's flaccid script, which kills any genuine sense of dramatic tension from scene to scene, leaving the action to generate excitement on its own (an almost impossible task). To make matters worse, Emmerich falls back on the hoariest of visual tricks to induce emotion in the most dramatic moments: slow motion. The number of slow-mo shots is so extensive that their accumulation likely adds at least 15 minutes to the film's running time. Oy. Of course, their increasingly predictable appearances do ratchet-up the fun if you're counting how many times your eyes are rolling from the opening credits through the finale.

Most of the actors escape reasonably unscathed from their hammily written roles. Gibson has a talent for making scenes work in spite of themselves, and he's a decent anchor for this material. Too bad the role isn't half as interesting as his performance implies it ought to be. He's got an excellent rapport with children, though, and his sense of ease provides a nice touch to the family scenes. Heath Ledger is fine as Gabriel, but he's saddled with some pretty corny stuff to do, particularly in the swoony romantic scenes. Joely Richardson fares worst as Charlotte, a character who mostly beams with affection while choking on some really dreadful dialogue. The only big winner in the cast is Jason Isaccs, who plays the outlandishly evil Tavington with so much relish that you almost want to take a bite out of him. Amazing, considering what a crappy role it must be on paper. I repeat: Jason Isaacs. Remember the name, because you'll probably be seeing a lot more of it (and him) in the future.

While it's difficult to take this cornball film seriously enough to criticize it for thematic content, I have to admit that–without going back to the late 70s or the 80s–it's hard to think of a more simplistic, mawkish, or blood-thirsty revenge fantasy than The Patriot. This ought to be surprising coming from the same screenwriter who penned Saving Private Ryan, but perhaps it's just proof that the script for Ryan might just as easily have been made into repulsive dreck with a different tone applied by its director and cast. Spielberg's air of lament for the carnage inflicted on (and by) soldiers is replaced here by Emmerich with a kill those Limey Bastards attitude that only gathers steam as the film progresses. Though I have no doubt that we Americans are fortunate to have wriggled free from the yoke of British rule, their portrayal here as villains is laughably over-the-top. Even the (apparently) more level-headed General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) is presented as priggish and smug and reeking of snobbery, disparaging our oh-so-valiant ancestors and deeming them too tacky to take seriously as a threat. Da noive! No wonder we fought that war! At the same time, the colonials are shown to be a rag-tag band of saints and martyrs, whose limitless capacity for doing more with less makes you wonder why they don't display their Eagle Scout badges more prominently. If that ain't enough to make you proud to root for them, Emmerich gives his characters enough symbolic memorabilia to lug around that you'll have to come on board eventually. Will we ever get a chance to see our hero wave that tattered flag that Gabriel's been patching throughout the movie? Will Ben find a thematically appropriate use for the bullets he's been making by melting down his dead son's toy soldiers? Awww, c'mon! You didn't really think I'd answer those questions and reveal the shocking twists, did you? Never! You'll have to spot them coming from a mile away on your own. But try to relax and make a game of it if you can, and forget that this movie is about a real war that had a complex genesis, plenty of shades of gray on both sides, and real consequences. Then lower your head in shame, and file The Patriot where it really belongs... under Guilty Pleasures.

Review © July 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Sony Pictures Entertainment.

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