[Written for Film.com]
How can a filmmaker with this much bad taste be blessed with such a dazzling gift for making images? That’s the puzzle posed by The Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich, the German-born creator of Independence Day and Godzilla. Emmerich is like a database of classic compositions and camera angles, spewing out gorgeous tableaux with a punch of his visual keyboard. When South Carolina plantation owner Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) goes to his front door, and opens it to see a night battle waged in the trees on his farm, it’s an image out of a dream: musket-fire lighting up the darkness with white flashes, powder rising, the ghostly sound of voices.
These visual coups come along every ten minutes or so in The Patriot, and some of them take your breath away. Unfortunately, there are also the little matters of character, plot, and history, which represent rather large stumbling blocks. For starters, The Patriot is not so much an American Revolution movie as it is a straight revenge melodrama, with Redcoats as the backdrop. (The Revolution, famously un-addressed by Hollywood over the decades, remains a magnificent subject waiting for the movies.) Benjamin Martin, haunted by his past sins in the French and Indian War, refuses to fight against the British in 1776, but joins in savagely after the Redcoats bring death to his own doorstep.
Thus, unlike Mel Gibson’s Braveheart hero, “freedom” is less the issue than revenge on the head of the dastardly British Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a knave fond of shooting children in the back and then chuckling over the deed. Tavington doesn’t actually tie anyone to the railroad tracks, but only because they didn’t have railroads in the late 1770s. By comparison, General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) comes across as a doddering fool, outfoxed by Martin and inordinately worried about his Great Danes.
Also in the mix are Martin’s oldest son (Aussie actor Heath Ledger), his late wife’s sister (Joely Richardson, in the kind of role that gets agents fired), a French comrade (Tchéky Karyo) to Martin’s Carolina militia group, and an American colonel (Chris Cooper). Cooper is so good, so authentic in his scenes with Mel Gibson, he pulls the film’s energy in his direction. Gibson’s performance is robbed of his customary humor, and he flounders around in search of the character’s core. Some of the blame for this should go to Emmerich, who is no actor’s director, a weakness that wasn’t a problem amidst the enjoyable corn of Independence Day but which hampers a movie begging to be taken seriously.
Emmerich, with producer Dean Devlin and screenwriter Robert Rodat, drags in every hokey motivational ploy known to 19th-century melodrama. The youngest of Martin’s seven motherless children must be mute, the better to begin yawping at a crucial moment; the fiancée of his eldest son must be adorable, the better to be sacrificed as a way of stoking the bloodlust of revenge. The film is ruthless in its manipulations: as in Rodat’s script for Saving Private Ryan, characters who might be generally expected to survive these kinds of stories are killed off halfway through.
The era is beautifully rendered, physically speaking (kudos to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, even for the cannonball-to-the-face shot). Historical issues are another matter. The film’s treatment of slavery is queasy; Martin (of course) doesn’t have slaves on his plantation, just contented employees. Meanwhile, most of the film’s blacks are happy and noble, in scenes evidently inspired by the Gullah culture of the Carolina coast. Thus the movie manages to be both evasive and politically correct at once.
But look, we expect some historical fudging. What makes The Patriot exhausting, despite its handful of blood-boiling sequences, is the way it numbingly resembles other movies, mainly of the Jerry Bruckheimer variety. Why should a Revolutionary War movie have the scene of the hero rushing toward the camera, shouting “Nooooooooo!” in slow motion as some atrocity is perpetrated? Because it’s in every movie like this.