movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Paramount Pictures Corp. All rights reserved.)

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The General's Daughter
Midway through The General's Daughter, one of the characters says, "There are three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way." This line serves as the climax of its scene, with the camera holding close on the character as each word is uttered. But the line is so utterly cliché that the scene never hits the peak the filmmakers are aiming for. This moment is representative of many of the problems in the movie. The General's Daughter is filled with recycled characters and situations from countless military and detective dramas.

James Cromwell (who you might remember as Farmer Hoggett in Babe) plays an Army general with visions of the presidency. However, he's more interested in covering up some of the details when a murder takes place on his base than he is in finding the perpetrator(s). John Travolta plays the investigating CID officer, a non-conformist who nonetheless has respect for the Army. Madeliene Stowe joins Travolta's investigation. She is also a CID veteran. She and Travolta have a romantic past that they must learn to deal with as they investigate the murder. Clarence Williams III plays a colonel whose primary interest is protecting the General's reputation--and his own political future. James Woods plays the chief red herring in the mix. He is an acid-tongued commanding officer in the Army's Psychological Operations unit. He also served as mentor for the female officer who was recently slain. This mix of characters is suspiciously familiar, recalling movies such as A Few Good Men, Crossfire, and No Way Out. That's not bad in itself. Many great movies have freely drawn from other movies. Casablanca, for example, owes a great debt to Algiers. But the proof is in the execution and that's where The General's Daughter falls apart.

Simon West directs as if he's still making Con Air (his first directorial effort). Everything in The General's Daughter lacks subtlety. West attempts to pile on the Southern gothic atmosphere, but his idea of atmosphere is to cover everything with Spanish moss. We're supposed to see the connection between the gothic setting and the corrupt practices at work on the Army base, but this connection is blatantly simplistic. Worse yet is a scene in the opening moments of the movie, when Travolta and a generic bad guy have a gun battle on a house boat. West fills the background with dramatically placed spotlights, creating a hyperstylized, artificial setting that only serves to undercut the brutality of the action.

But the screenplay itself (based upon a best-selling novel by Nelson DeMille) is equally to blame. It teases us with suspect after suspect, but they are always obviously nothing more than red herrings--and thus all they do is waste screen time and try the patience of the audience. The General's Daughter is one of those mystery movies where any savvy filmgoer will have no trouble at all identifying who the murderer is after only a few minutes. Just look for the least-likely suspect and then do a little thinking about the casting.

After you strip away the faux atmosphere and the faux murder suspects, The General's Daughter boils down to little more than a sleazy attempt to titillate the audience with intimations of rape. The movie's central image becomes a female officer stripped naked and tied spread-eagled on the ground. That's what this movie is really all about. And its idea of foreplay is providing us with glimpses into the officer's sordid sexual history. She has it all on videotape in her basement, along with about every sexual device imaginable. We're supposed to be shocked as the story unravels and we discover her past and her own father's role in shaping her behavior. But these scenes reek of exploitation.

Back in the '30s or '40s, The General's Daughter would've made a perfect exploitation picture. Imagine it as a roadshow attraction, maybe playing on a double-bill with Slaves in Bondage or Sex Madness. It takes the subject of women in the military and then shows us the dangers that women officers face--in particular the threat of rape. But the age of exploitation is still with us. Now we live in the age of The Jerry Springer Show and Jenny Jones, where the sexual peccadilloes of the guests are trotted out for everyone to vicariously thrill to while simultaneously feigning disgust. Following the lead of these modern day exploitation offerings, The General's Daughter thrives on a supermarket tabloid-like approach to the problems that it depicts. Its main purpose is to expose the sordid lives of the slain female officer and the people around her. This type of approach might have been excusable back in the '30s when an enterprising roadshow exploitation filmmaker would have seen the same story as prime material for a salacious little moral parable. But in the '90s, with Hollywood spending millions of dollars on movies like this, the results are simply pathetic.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]