Worth A Look: 12.72%
Just Average: 24.03%
Pretty Crappy: 14.84%
12 reviews, 211 user ratings
|Patriot, The (2000)
by Andrew Howe
I am led to believe that many of our brothers and sisters in the United States harbour a great deal of affection for tales of the Revolution. Unfortunately, the lives and times of the era have resulted in precious few quality films, which is inexplicable given that all of the elements necessary for the creation of an epic (larger-than-life heroes, despicable villains, monumental battles) are present and accounted for.Enter Roland Emmerich, Robert Rodat and Mel Gibson, a triumvirate of artistically-inclined individuals whose resume's reveal a marked affinity for this brand of filmmaking. Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan, Gibson hacked his way to glory in Braveheart, and Emmerich - well, I suppose he directed Godzilla and Independence Day, which lends him some credibility as a player in the big-budget arena (the fact that the world would be a better place if these films had never been made is another matter).
"(Don't fool) with the children of the revolution"
Given this level of talent, hopes were high that The Patriot would take its place amongst the classics of the genre, but Rodat's script ensures that it never quite reaches the heights to which it aspires. This is unfortunate, because at its best the film is everything the premise promises - majestic, powerful and deeply satisfying.
Early press suggested that The Patriot was an "American Braveheart", but the films have only two things in common - a performance by Gibson as a vengeance-seeking erstwhile pacifist, and the notion that exterminating British soldiers is fine and glorious pursuit. The similarities end there, and moreover the underlying theme (the underdog fighting against oppression) has been a staple of the industry from the time the first reel was threaded into a projector. I mention this because the film does not deserve to be judged by its (infinitely superior) predecessor, since it is, at its core, a different beast entirely.
The plot presents few difficulties for those desiring a three-line synopsis. Benjamin Martin (Gibson) returns from the French-Indian Wars to raise his extended family, renouncing his violent ways in favour of home and hearth. Once the Revolution kicks off in earnest, Martin's eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) joins the militia against his father's wishes. Despite his desire to live in peace, an act of wanton brutality by a British commander, Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), leads Mel to conclude that turning the other cheek is best left to men of the cloth, opening the way for two hours of butchery, pained reflection and meditations upon family values, unlikely friendships and the insanity of war.
The acting is of a universally high calibre, with the only sour note being Lisa Brenner's portrayal of Ledger's nominal love interest (she seems to be under the impression that she's playing a citizen of a modern-day American city, and her facial expressions and vocal delivery are irritating in the extreme). Anyone who has seen Ledger in the Australian crime flick Two Hands will know that he possesses a certain measure of talent, but I am genuinely surprised at the maturity he brings to the role of Gabriel. Playing brash young firebrands is, admittedly, not the most difficult task an actor can assay, but Ledger evidently believes that if you're going to do something you might as well give it everything you've got, and the result is a believable performance which makes it easy for the viewer to become invested in his fate.
Ledger may take his role to heart, but Issacs makes him look like an extra from Dawn of the Dead. From the moment he storms onto the screen he sets the controls to Warp Factor 10 and never looks back, and the result is one of the most enjoyably over-the-top performances in recent memory. Not since Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has an actor dedicated themselves to radiating malevolence with such single-minded intensity, and he's aided and abetted by a character who possesses no redeeming features whatsoever. This, unfortunately, is what prevents Issacs from taking his place amongst the all-time great screen villains - Tavington is a one-note creation, bereft of believable motivations, and pure evil, while entertaining, is never intriguing. However, in the hissability stakes he's up there with the best of them (he also rates highly on the atrocity scale and the smarm-o-meter), and as such makes a fine antagonist for our righteous heroes (by the second half of the film the viewer's desire to see Tavington get what's coming to him is heading for the stratosphere, allowing the audience to claim a personal stake in the outcome).
The supporting cast, by and large, service their roles with distinction, with special mention going to Tchéky Karyo as a sympathetic French soldier. However, this is Mel's film, no doubt about it, and it will come as no surprise to learn that he is damn-near perfect for the part. Gibson's strength is his ability to believably portray lost souls on the vengeance trail - even when he's supposedly embraced pacifism, there's always something in his eyes and the way he holds himself which tells you that this is a man you don't want to mess with, and when he gets that stone-cold expression on his face you'd rather be anywhere than in the shoes of the person who put it there. There's nothing on offer we haven't seen before, but that's no reason to disparage what is, by and large, a note-perfect performance (wait until DeNiro stops playing gangsters, then we'll talk).
The cinematography, direction and production design are exactly what you would expect from a Widescreen epic - gorgeous scenery, vibrant colours and a laudable attempt to recreate the period in question (though the music is not as memorable as I have liked – where’s James Horner when you need him?). Those desiring a serving of outlandish violence will also not be disappointed - if it's not a British soldier copping a tomahawk to the skull, it's some poor slob getting their leg blown off by a cannonball. The Last of the Mohicans left many of the gory details to the imagination, but the creators of The Patriot evidently view such restraint with disdain, and as a result the horrors of violent death are once again well and truly on the menu.
If I were to leave it there, I would have little choice but to proclaim The Patriot an unqualified success. However, as seems to have been the case with many of the recent big-budget releases, its merits are undermined by the script, and a potentially superb film is forced to settle for an above-average appellation.
In the rush to praise Saving Private Ryan, the fact that the script was the weakest aspect of the film tended to be overlooked. Rodat has an unfortunate affinity for clichés, and many of his characters are little more than unfinished sketches (he certainly didn't have to worry about turning his talents to female characters, since it was an all-male cast). However, Spielberg's visual flair distracted the viewer from the script's major crimes, and much of that film's success can be laid squarely at his door.
It goes without saying that Emmerich is no Spielberg, and as a result the flaws in Rodat's script are laid bare for all to see. Prime amongst his failings is his inability to invest the characters with any depth - they lack the idosyncracies which make a character live and breathe, and, with the sole exception of Martin, are only marginally three-dimensional. Rodat's creations exist to serve the plot and his perception of the staples of the genre - an idealistic youth, a token black soldier, an evil villain, and many others - and as a result they never get under the viewer's skin in the way a finely-tuned character can do. Most of the supporting cast members are also left in the background, which amounts to a capital crime for a film in which much of the viewer's involvement hinges upon whether the violent death of the character in question is a cause for concern (it isn’t).
Which is not to say that the film is entirely bereft of interesting individuals, merely that it could have been so much better. It is also a testament to the skill of the actors that many of them rise above their underwritten roles - Karyo is a delight, and other minor players (a reverend who puts aside the Good Book in favour of a rifle, for example) manage to stand out from the crowd.
However, Rodat's penchant for cliché's also makes an unwelcome reappearance, and there are scenes which will have viewers squirming in their seats. The most indefensible example is Martin's daughter, who refuses to speak to her father until the time is right for a tearful reconciliation. I cannot believe that Rodat didn't know he was plumbing the depths of schmaltzy trash when he penned that scene, and the fact that it was allowed to stand bespeaks a certain laziness on the part of everyone involved.
And that is, at its core, the problem with this film - it is, undeniably, a big-budget Hollywood take on the Revolution. It is written with a modern-day sensibility, and attempts to expand its appeal by pandering to what its creators think the audience wants to see. That's not necessarily a death-knell for a film - The Last of the Mohicans had its share of Hollywood romance, but the script was believable, emotionally-charged and occasionally touching, and moreover Mann's style infused the subject matter with a power it would have otherwise lacked. Rodat's script is anything but, and given that Emmerich lacks Mann's flair it is little wonder that much of The Patriot sinks when it should have soared.
I’m being a little harsh, of course, since there are times when the script makes good on its promises. The battles and skirmishes are suitably arresting (though how much of that can be attributed to the script is open to debate), and a number of scenes will live on in the memory long after the closing credits have faded (Martin’s haunted recounting of his experiences during the war, a poignant exchange between two of Martin’s followers prior to the final battle, and many others). Contrary to expectations, the script is also refreshingly free of jingoistic patriotism. There's one scene which involves a dose of literal flag-waving, but it's so uplifting that you can forgive the script that sin. For this, if nothing else, Rodat has my eternal gratitude.
None of my complaints, however, should be taken to suggest that The Patriot is unworthy of our attention. There is much to like, and I suspect that repeated viewings will enhance its appeal, since its length (164 minutes) ensures that its nuances may not be readily apparent from a single viewing. It's merely that, as a fan of the epic, I truly wanted to love this film, and as a result my disappointment is that much harder to bear.
The Patriot may not be an instant classic, but I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours of your life. Fine performances, top-notch action sequences and some memorable scenes conspire to raise the film above the everyday, while Rodat's script, flawed though it may be, remains on track long enough to ensure that everyone will find something of value within. See it, enjoy it, and try not to think too hard about what might have been.
* * *
Postscript – Historical liberties, and why I couldn’t care less
A number of critics have made much of the supposed historical inaccuracies enshrined in the script, but once again I mount the following argument in the filmmakers' defence - a feature film is not a documentary. Provided you don't distort historical fact to the extent that it becomes revisionism, the odd liberty with the contents of the history books is not a hanging offence.
Prime amongst the criticisms is that Martin's workers are supposedly free men - apparently it is extremely unlikely that a landowner of the period would not possess a number of indentured servants. This is certainly a valid complaint, but it is a necessary conceit given the constraints of heroic storytelling.
By way of analogy, consider the character of William Wallace in Braveheart. Any student of Scottish history will tell you that Wallace was known to commit the odd atrocity himself, a fact which is actually alluded to in a throwaway line. However, if the scriptwriter had seen fit to depict these indefensible actions, a great deal of the audience's sympathy for Wallace would have instantly dissipated. That's fine if you're penning a character study, but tales of righteous vengeance require a suitably heroic protagonist, and if that means the negative aspects of the hero's character must be shunted aside then so be it.
I might also add that at no time does the film suggest that Martin's character is based on a real person. Its creators have suggested otherwise, but this is, for all intents and purposes, a work of fiction set against a historical backdrop. This provides Rodat the necessary space to create an appealing protagonist, and to attack him on that count constitutes little more than nit-picking.
The other aspect of the film which has come under fire (especially in England) is the supposedly negative portrayal of the British soldiers. A close reading of the film does not support this accusation - apart from Tavington, the worst that can be said of the British characters is that they perpetrate a number of crimes through being forced to follow orders (and show me a war in the history of mankind which didn't feature its share of that depressing state of affairs). The real problem is that the British roles are woefully underwritten, so we are never permitted to view them as living, breathing entities. However, this is a feature of virtually every war film ever made, so it's really just part and parcel of the overall package.
(I would suggest, incidentally, that the British have little reason to take this kind of thing as a personal affront. The fact remains that the British did attempt to take over the world in days gone by, and their methods were certainly nothing to praise (you could ask the Tasmanian aborigines, if there were any left alive). However, to suggest that a modern-day citizen of the Commonwealth is responsible for the actions of their ancestors is equivalent to blaming the current German Chancellor for World War II. The Patriot targets individuals, not the entire British populace from 1,000 B.C. to the present-day, so there is no reason for the English to get so sensitive about it. But then, of course, nobody's yet made a film with Australians as the villains, so perhaps I should wait for that day before I speak.)I would therefore suggest that everyone except American historians should ignore the protestations of those who would attack this film on the grounds that it deviates from historical fact, for its crimes in that area are minor, and moreover represent a necessary evil for the creators of historical epics. Enough said.
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originally posted: 10/21/00 22:15:06