FOR THE FOURTH of July, we have another rousing, patriotic celebration of American pluck and spirit, courtesy of the German director who brought us Independence Day this time four years ago. That film looked forward, to a sci-fi invasion that restores lost unity and fellowship to resistance fighters. Patriot looks back to a similar situation of peril and disarray, when South Carolina reeled under British wartime occupation during the period between the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. It's a sweeping chapter of history from Saving Private Ryan screenwriter Robert Rodat, who essentially reprises that movie's reluctant-warrior theme in the flintlock era of combat.
directed by Roland Emmerich
with Mel Gibson, Jason Isaacs, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, and Chris Cooper
opens July 28 at Guild 45th, Meridian 16
In the battle-weary Hanks role, Mel Gibson displays plenty of paternal anguish as Benjamin Martin, a widowed father of seven trying to distance himself from his behavior during the French and Indian War. Asked to join the colonial army, he protests, "I'm a parent; I haven't got the luxury of principles." Naturally his 18-year-old son goes to enlist; naturally the redcoats come knocking on his door; naturally a grievance occurs that causes him to take up arms. (As usual, the personal becomes the political.) We expect as much in a movie over two and a half hours long; Martin's brief pacifist idyll is merely a prologue to the bloodletting to come.
Still, Patriot is a much better film than the Roland Emmerich-Dean Devlin team's Independence Day or their awful remake of Godzilla. They've learned enough to hire A-list talent, including cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who brings oil painting-like tableaus to life, and John Williams, whose score effectively recycles his signature Star Wars style. Rodat's script is certainly well researched, but debate scenes feel like GOP strategy sessions, with more slogans than memorable lines. Tyranny, taxation, states' rights—George W. Bush should take notes on this one.
PATRIOTISM ASIDE, the film includes enough tomahawk throwing, musket firing, and close-quarter knife fighting to hold your interest between the corny family scenes, frequent speechifying, and obligatory young romance. The generic grudge-and-revenge formula requires a dastardly rival, Colonel Tavington, whom today we'd call a war criminal. Jason Isaacs smirks and smolders effectively in this part (without attaining the delicious villainy of Alan Rickman in Robin Hood). Hence, this version of the American Revolution plays out like Bosnia, with atrocities on both sides, as it's revealed that Martin has quite a savage streak himself (albeit one balanced by a Christian conscience).
The carnage of 18th-century warfare—neat lines of soldiers firing at point-blank range—soon gives way to the guerrilla tactics of wily Martin, who leads a Dirty Dozen- style brigade of ruffians—augmented, of course, by a token black. It's a very '90s, PC way of sidestepping race (they're in South Carolina, after all), no less incongruous than when Martin's family finds refuge on a black-inhabited barrier island that comes off like a rustic, photogenic Club Med resort.
Its pastiche of traditional values and modern storytelling puts The Patriot in a league with one of those old James Michener historical novels: entertaining, middlebrow, and too long for its own good. Gibson fared better in his own Braveheart, and his few nicely affecting scenes here aren't helped by the knee breeches and tricornered hats of the colonial period. (Although the movie may briefly restore male ponytails to fashion.) Gibson's characteristic looseness doesn't get enough expression; he's too pent-up, too burdened with grief and guilt. It's not enough that he is father and military leader—he has to be history teacher, too. Yet by focusing on the little guy (George Washington is glimpsed for but a few seconds), The Patriot succeeds at making a distant, murky revolution into a reasonably exciting lesson—albeit one that could've benefited from more study breaks.