The Patriot (2000)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Cast: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Joely Richardson, Lisa Brenner, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Gregory Smith, Mika Boorem, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Trevor Morgan, Joey D. Vieira.
2000 164 minutes
Rated: (for graphic violence, gore, and mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 1, 2000.
An attempt by director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin (who both created 1996's "Independence Day" and 1998's "Godzilla") to make an Oscar-worthy motion picture set during the Revolutionary War just sounds like trouble. After all, for filmmakers who have spent their whole career creating aliens and giant lizards, a reality-based war epic simply would seem out of their league. The outcome of their endeavor is "The Patriot," and it is no better than anyone should have expected, which is to say that it isn't any good at all.
Strictly amateur night concerning the basic storyline, which does not thoughtfully examine the battle of the Colonies, circa the late-18th century, but lays out a threadbare revenge plotline that is as misguided in its ideas as it is in its lackluster delivery of them. Instead of creating characters, director Emmerich and screenwriter Robert Rodat have gone back to the old standby of "good versus evil," which is exactly what they did in "Independence Day," replacing extraterrestrials with the British. And the relationships that evolve throughout the story are stripped to their bare minimum, with each person getting their chance to deliver big, meaningful speeches about patriotism and independence, but little in the way of character-defining dialogue. Granted, shallowness may be difficult to pull off in a nearly 3-hour drama but Emmerich and Rodat have managed just that.
Mel Gibson toplines the respectable, if unextraordinary, cast as the conciliatory Benjamin Martin, who has lived in South Carolina raising his seven children by himself ever since his beloved wife passed away. Despite the callings of his comrades, Benjamin wants no part in joining the militia, instead set on continuing to be a parent to his kids. His eldest son, the patriotic 18-year-old Gabriel (Heath Ledger), however, does join his fellow men in the fight for his homeland. Returning home one night wounded, Benjamin takes it upon himself to treat Gabriel and the other hurt soldiers. When the Green Dragoons, headed by the conniving English Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), catch wind of this, and ultimately capture Gabriel and cold-bloodedly murder Benjamin's 15-year-old son, Thomas (Gregory Smith), it sets off a timebomb within Benjamin that forces him to join Gabriel in the war, as well as avenge his late son by any means possible.
Following a promising opening thirty minutes that includes a courageously controversial depiction of two of Benjamin's young sons bearing arms and murdering the Green Dragoons, and, albeit briefly, showing their reactions, as well as Benjamin's, on the power of the weapons they hold, "The Patriot" careens off-course for the 135-minute duration, to which it never repairs itself. Aimlessly wandering around in a needlessly simplistic storyline that is drug out to an unbearable length, but without giving any depth or insight to what is occurring onscreen, the film is so problematic in so many different ways, it is almost surprising that Mel Gibson would have agreed to take part in the project.
Much of "The Patriot" is so unserviceable that it occasionally borders on some sort of Monty Python war parody, with pratfalls and unequivocally inane dialogue that I would never wish upon any actor, no matter how talented they are, to have to utter on the big screen. Worst of all is that much of the humor is, indeed, intentional, but not one attempt at comedy is the least bit successful or appropriate in the confines of the otherwise dark subject matter.
There are two inevitable romantic subplots, one of them between Gabriel and the fair maiden Anne (Lisa Brenner), whose father is hard of hearing and always misunderstanding what others are saying to him. Following three scenes together (one which is carried out with both of the principles having black ink smeared on their teeth), we are supposed to believe that Gabriel and Anne are deeply in love, and so they get married. The second romance, even more poorly handled than the Gabriel/Anne debacle (if that is possible), is between Benjamin and his late wife's sister, Charlotte (Joely Richardson), and is so inconsequential that only two brief scenes are afforded to their budding romantic relationship.
No less than three child death scenes are portrayed in "The Patriot," with a variation each time of a father weeping over the lifeless body, and followed by an alteration of how the parent deals with the death. The war scenes on display (many of which are filmed in slow-motion) are plentiful, as well, but become tedious long before the climactic battle has been carried out, primarily because there isn't enough substance present to withhold the amount of time you are asked to spend with the picture. The film basically runs around in circles with nowhere to go until the finale that pits Benjamin head-to-head with Colonel Tavington, whom he has vowed to kill.
Mel Gibson may be stuck in a creative wasteland here, but he is stunning and focused as Benjamin Martin, who cares for his family so much, he will do anything to get back at those who have wronged them. It is clear that Gibson does have his heart in the right place, and must have taken the role based on his connection with the character, since he himself has just as many children as Benjamin, and obviously loves them a great deal. The problem is, Gibson played a character much like this one in his far superior 1995 drama, "Braveheart," which had intelligence and complexity to go along with its intense scenes of violence.
Heath Ledger (1999's "10 Things I Hate About You"), an Australian actor who pulls off a believable American accent, is powerful and passionate as Gabriel, but it intermittently is difficult to watch him perform in a film that he is so clearly above. Meanwhile, Jason Isaacs, as the token villain, is appropriately slimy and despicable, efficiently creating a figure that audiences will be able to hate. I say 'figure,' rather than 'character,' because at no point throughout does screenwriter Rodat give Colonel Tavington any positive qualities or traits aside from his thirst for killing. All other performances mostly blend into the background and are wasted, including Joely Richardson, as Aunt Charlotte; Lisa Brenner, as Gabriel's love, Anne Howard; and Chris Cooper, as Colonel Harry Burwell, an old comrade of Benjamin's.
For someone who sees the majority of films released, I will be the first to admit that I am sometimes a little slow to predict what is going to happen, but at every point in "The Patriot," I made a guess on what would occur next, and was consistently right. Aside from its predictability, its views on patriotism, and the treatment the battle scenes get, were something that got deeply under my skin. As someone who personally finds war a sad, devastating, and pointless act, its music score, by John Williams, was utterly offensive, with its upbeat, flag-waving strains played over shots of death and the destruction of human life. There is a difference between portraying the facts, and sensationalizing war. Perhaps it would have been in Roland Emmerich's best interest to realize this, before turning his version of the Revolutionary War into some sort of fantasy where death is a chauvinistic punchline, rather than a tragedy.
©2000 by Dustin Putman