"It's a free country—or at least it will be."
For better or worse, director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin have become synonymous with the summer blockbuster in recent years. The Centropolis Entertainment pair's work has garnered a reputation for gripping action scenes and excellent use of special effects, often held together by weak plots and even weaker characters. For their entry in the summer 2000 box-office sweepstakes they teamed with screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) and action-drama superstar Mel Gibson (Gallipoli, The Road Warrior, Hamlet) to present a tale of the American Revolution.
Facts of the Case
Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a wealthy South Carolina landowner. Revolution is in the air, but he has no stomach for fighting the British. He has seen war, and is haunted by what it brought out in him. He also knows that any war against the British will be fought among the homes and farms of America, and as the widower father of seven children he values the safety of his family more than the freedom of any hypothetical American nation. Martin's oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger—10 Things I Hate About You, Blackrock, Two Hands) is disgusted by what he sees as his father's cowardice and sets off to join the colonial army.
Soon, as Martin had predicted, the war comes home to the plantations of South Carolina. He continues to stay out of the fighting, using his home as a hospital for the wounded of both sides. Gabriel turns up among the wounded, carrying important colonial dispatches. When the ruthless Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs—Dragonheart, Event Horizon, Armageddon) happens upon the Martin home, he captures Gabriel as a spy and orders all the colonial wounded put to death. In the ensuing confrontation Tavington shoots Thomas, Martin's second-oldest son, and orders the house and barns burned. Spurred to action by the loss of his son and his home, Martin sets out with his two youngest sons to free Gabriel. He affects a daring rescue, wiping out an entire detachment of British troop almost single-handedly in the process. Gabriel is saved, but Benjamin's old demons have been reawakened. He hides the younger children at the plantation of his late wife's sister Charlotte (Joely Richardson—Event Horizon, 101 Dalmatians, Return to Me) and sets out with Gabriel to join the fight.
There are two main reasons to watch this movie: Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. These two actors give very good performances that rise above the material they are given to work with. Gibson portrays Benjamin Martin as a complex character, with conflicting emotions and desires. He knows he has to fight, but his past continues to haunt him. He fights for a noble cause, but he is motivated by a need for vengeance. He wants to be faithful to the memory of his wife, but he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte. He also wrestles with issues of faith, believing in a benevolent God, yet unable to understand what has befallen him. Gibson gives a performance that is full of raw personal emotion.
Heath Ledger is impressive in this, his second Hollywood movie. He is able play Gabriel as a man who is passionate about his ideals, yet with a youthful mischievous streak. He is a promising young actor, and is particularly impressive in his ability to stand toe to toe with an actor like Mel Gibson and never yield an inch.
Recognition is also due Jason Isaacs, who does a good job in a thankless role as Colonel Tavington. There are faults in this role that will be discussed in good time, but Isaacs's performance is not one of them.
The Centropolis duo are known for their expertise with action scenes and special effects, and these areas are real strengths of The Patriot. A lot of work went into recreating colonial-era South Carolina, and the results are impressive. There are some scenes that are obviously computer generated and/or matte paintings, but for the most part the effects are well done, especially in the brutal battle scenes. These scenes are also very well staged and realistic. They bring home the violence and wastefulness of eighteenth century battle tactics.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and is quite good. Atmospheric effects are excellent, including scenes where the viewer is placed directly into a column of marching soldiers. Battle scenes come alive with sounds of gunfire, cannon, and shouted orders coming through clearly. My only complaint is that at times John Williams' score overpowers the sounds of the movie; I can't decide whether the filmmakers did this intentionally, or if it is a problem with the DVD audio mix.
The video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. It is a decent presentation overall, but is somewhat disappointing. Some of the picture problems are the result of choices in cinematography. Emmerich and Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel shot almost the entire movie backlit, and at the late afternoon "magic hour" of the day. These choices are visually interesting, but lead to picture problems that cannot be totally attributed to the DVD. Interior scenes in particular often look grainy and underlit. Reds often appear undersaturated and lifeless, and other colors often seem to be slightly washed-out. In many scenes, especially interior scenes, the images appear to be slightly soft and out of focus. Finally, there is some minor evidence of edge enhancement/ringing artifacts and frequent instances of what appears to be tube face/phosphor noise. Again, this appears mostly in the interior scenes, where solid surfaces like walls tend to exhibit some false movement and shimmering. These are minor flaws, and the video presentation is good overall, but it is does not approach the quality of the best DVD releases.
The selection of supplemental material from Columbia/TriStar is truly first class. First and foremost there is the commentary track, featuring Devlin and Emmerich themselves. It is quite good. I know that when watching a D&E film I have often wondered what they were thinking, and they do a very good job of explaining their thought processes and the choices that went into making The Patriot…Perhaps the most amazing thing about this track, however, is the extent to which they show their basic cluelessness about making decent movies. The scenes and plot elements that they are proudest of are invariably those that fail most miserably. However, they come across in the commentary as actually quite decent and likeable fellows, and they share a lot of interesting information about the creative process.
Next on the list of features is a "visual effects interactive featurette." This feature examines five different special effects sequences from the movie and explains step-by-step how each was constructed. There is a lot of variety in the sequences shown, and a number of different techniques. I found it simply fascinating.
Included on the disc are two ten-minute documentary-style featurettes. The first is called "The Art of War" and deals with the challenges involved in creating authentic Revolutionary War battles for the camera. The second is called "The True Patriots" and covers a lot of the historical research that went into the film. It includes a close look at Deborah Scott, the costume designer for The Patriot, who won an Oscar for her work on Titanic. Both of these featurettes are more interesting and informative than those on most other discs.
Next up are galleries of production and publicity photos. I am not a fan of static photo galleries on a DVD, but these are mostly interesting. There are also talent files for a number of the principals involved. These are pretty standard fare but are nicely done and informative without being overlong. Two trailers are included. They are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with full Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Even after watching the movie two or three times, I found these trailers exciting and wanted to see the movie they were advertising.
One of the more interesting features on this disc was a collection of conceptual art to film comparisons. This takes traditional storyboard-type art and compares it with still photos from the finished movie. Thirteen different scenes are presented. This feature struck me as an improvement over normal storyboard presentations.
The feature I enjoyed most on The Patriot was the deleted scenes section. Seven scenes are presented, which can be watched with or without commentary by Devlin and Emmerich. This section was also frustrating because it showed that some of the best, most emotional scenes in the movie were cut out due to concerns about the running time. There is one scene in particular where Benjamin Martin holds a makeshift family funeral for his son Thomas. Mel Gibson's acting in this scene, his depiction of Martin's struggle with his own faith and his guilt over his past, are so powerful and honest that this scene would have added a lot to the movie. The funeral scene only runs for about a minute, and in my mind it was a huge mistake to cut it from the final version of the picture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The central problem with The Patriot is that the filmmakers really never decided what kind of story they wanted to tell, and as a result had no yardstick for what should have been included or cut out. They tried to cram in too many different stories, and wound up not doing justice to any of them. There is the story of the war itself, the story of a family torn apart by the war, the story of a man wrestling with his past and his faith, and not one but two love stories. Better or more serious filmmakers might have pulled it off, but not Devlin and Emmerich. The result is a kitchen-sink amalgamation of interesting images, subplots that go nowhere, and tired clichés that serve only to weaken the narrative. In the end we get a movie saddled with muddled motivations, useless and distracting love interests, a church burning, and attempted commentary on race relations that reeks of the very worst sort of tokenism.
All of this leads to serious pacing problems as well. For example, the story is complicated with uninteresting love interests, one each for father and son. In order to give these love interests something to do, the movie wastes huge amounts of time taking detours so that Benjamin and Gabriel can leave the war and interact with their family and girlfriends. These scenes might not be so bad if they actually showed us something about any of the characters, but they do not and wind up as crude emotional manipulation. More importantly, they serve to undermine the very clear motivations and sense of purpose for these characters.
Much has been made of the unflattering depiction of the British in this movie. The problem here is not the insult to the British, but rather to the audience. The British characters are wholly one-dimensional, depending on every stereotypical British trait in the book. Worse yet is the depiction of the main villain, Colonel Tavington. He seems less interested in winning the war than in inflicting pain on the locals for the sheer joy of it. Perhaps no other screen villain has been more cartoonishly and deliberately cruel. Note to Devlin and Emmerich: we knew that this movie was about the American Revolution. We knew that it was told from the colonial perspective, and that the British would be the bad guys. We didn't need a neon sign telling us whom to root for and whom to hiss. In good war movies, like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Enemy Below, we see both sides as actual human beings. In The Patriot, we see British soldiers lock the population of a town in a church and burn it. This sequence is particularly infuriating because it accomplishes nothing for the story. It comes late in the movie, after the battle lines have been drawn and Tavington has already been established as a bad, bad man. We haven't gotten to know any of the characters in the church as anything more than cardboard cutouts, so we feel nothing for them as they die. D&E are going for a cheap emotional response, and trying to polish Tavington's bad guy credentials. They could just as well have had him kick a few puppies while they were at it. They would have elicited the same knee-jerk response without spending all that money on special effects. In the commentary track D&E talk about Tavington's character as being "well-rounded" and showing "vulnerability," as well as being "one of the best villains in a long time." Yeah, right. Whatever you say, guys.
I have only one criticism of the DVD itself. The menu system is hard to navigate and poorly laid out. I know this seems like nitpicking, but too many studios concentrate on making great-looking menus that no one can figure out how to navigate, and I think that more attention to simplicity and ease of use would be in order.
The Patriot opened on the Fourth of July weekend promising to be an American Braveheart, but in the end it was just another Independence Day. To be fair, I found it exciting and fairly entertaining, but I was extremely disappointed. This movie was only an average summer action flick, when this period in our history deserves a much better examination.
The Patriot is guilty of many, many things, but its most grave offense is impersonating a historical epic. However, stars Gibson and Ledger are completely acquitted, as is the Centropolis special effects crew. Columbia/TriStar is commended for a very good DVD package.
Punishment for Devlin and Emmerich should be appropriately severe, something along the lines of what Malcolm McDowell experienced in A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps then they would know how the rest of us feel when watching their movies.
We stand adjourned.
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