movie review by
Elizabeth Abele

 

(© 2000 Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. All rights reserved.)

Studio
Web site:
COLUMBIA PICTURES (SONY.COM)

Movie
Web site:
THE PATRIOT

The Patriot
Itís hard to know what to expect when the producer-director team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) team with Saving Private Ryan scribe Robert Rodat--but perhaps The Patriot is exactly what you would expect. This film manages to constantly move back and forth from spectacular, choreographed battle-scenes to stark ruminations of the horrors of war--matched by gorey illustrations. (Iíll never look at a cannonball in the same way.)

The focus of this film is Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), widowed father of seven and a "hero" of the French and Indian War, a designation that he puts aside as a sign of his impudent youth. Like James Stewart in Shenandoah, Martin attempts to choose his family over "the cause." However, circumstances quickly pull Martin into the fray, where he battles not only for "freedom" but against his darker abilities and desires.

The Patriot allows Gibson to show the best of his repertoire as he moves between frenzied warrior, tender father, and an inept furniture-maker. As his eldest son Gabriel, Heath Ledger holds his own against his countryman, displaying the same quiet intensity as in 10 Things I Hate About You, though displaying more of his boyish grin in his courtship of the spirited Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner).

The film makes a strong choice in keeping Martinís sons young; these are not young men but boys, with Gabriel the oldest at 18. One of the most compelling sequences comes when Martin is forced to press his two preteen sons into service, instructing them how to kill the officers first--while he scrambles in the woods with multiple rifles (in classic one-up-manship of Daniel Day-Lewisí Nathaniel in The Last of the Mohicans). The sons are affected in different ways by coming face-to-face with the barbarity of battle--and the war skills of their own father.

The film is set in South Carolina, with Martin escaping the stigma of slave-ownership by employing freedmen on his plantation. The majority of the film follows the fall of Charlestown to Cornwallis and the ill-fated attempts of the American army to contain the Redcoats--thus requiring the guerrilla tactics of a rag-tag militia, to be led, of course, by French-and-Indian War veteran Martin. As the French officer Jean Villeneuve assigned to train the militia, Tchťky Karyo provides an interesting counterpoint to Martinís leadership--a former foe, now second-in-command, with a different perspective on Martinís past exploits.

It is rare in a summer event movie to have such a quantity and range of memorably intricate supporting performances. Veteran actor Tom Wilkinson brings intelligence, humanity, and charisma to the thankless role of General Cornwallis. Rene Auberjonois is frequently moving as the Reverend Oliver, a man of God willing to fight and die with his congregation. Donal Logue brings his solid, everyman persona to the reluctant militiaman. Jay Arlen Jones allows the slave Occam to move from bewilderment to belief. Leon Rippy brings integrity and humanity to the backwoodsman John Billings. And no one does weary integrity like Chris Cooper as Col. Harry Burwell, suffering under incompetent superior officers and the constant advances of Cornwallis. As respectively the loving sister-in-law Charlotte Selton and the ruthless villain Col. Tavington, Joely Richardson and Jason Isaacs ably fulfill the demands of their roles without reaching the level of subtle complexity provided by the rest of the ensemble.

While The Patriot rises above the standard in the richness of its characters and their relationships, the film moves into popcorn-film territory with its more standard story elements, in particular the boo-hiss villainy of Col. Tavington. Instead of being content with his shooting of children and the wounded, the film veers into the unbelievable with the burning of a church with the congregation locked inside. While the romance between Anne and Gabriel is refreshing and winsome, the slowburn between Martin and his sister-in-law Charlotte is forced, most awkwardly with the anachronistic exchange: "May I sit here?" "Itís a free country...or at least it will be."

However, these cheesy moments cannot hold down for long an intricate script, superb ensemble, lush cinematography, compelling John Williams score, and the birth of a nation purchased by the blood of its citizens.


[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]