Hey folks, time for celebration.... the venerable old coot has finally loved an Emmerich and Devlin movie!!! You know what this means? It means he isn't a completely closed minded fool. It means that PEARL HARBOR might have a chance with this old man. It means that... well, he saw a damn good movie called THE PATRIOT. As usual you'll have to wade through all this meaningless babble about the movie, when he could be doing a really fun and cool schtick... Buuuuuuut noooooooo..... He felt the need and desire to discuss the movie. Talk about it's finer points, share with you his acute analysis of it's 24 frames a second. So read on and learn from the Professor....
Hey, Head Geek…
I don’t have to tell you what film I saw last night, Harry. You and Robie were there. But I was pretty careful after the film to not give too much of my reaction away to you two. Even when I spoke briefly to John Calley to congratulate him or when I told Dean Devlin that I thought they’d nailed it, I was still restraining myself, holding in certain thoughts and feelings and impressions. I wanted to take some time and really think about this one.
You see, I’ve always been an incredibly harsh critic of Devlin and Emmerich as a filmmaking team. STARGATE was a film that I ultimately found disappointing despite flashes of fun. With INDEPENDENCE DAY, though, I found myself resolutely standing against the mainstream, dumbfounded as it blasted its way up the box office charts. Even that didn’t prepare me for the sheer horror with which I sat and absorbed GODZILLA, a film that just puzzled me on every level. I say all this to help put my reaction to this new film in context, especially for those of you who have been so vocal in TALK BACKS about shills and the like whenever anyone says the film is good or even very good.
THE PATRIOT is not just a very good film. It’s most likely a great film.
The opening image is everything a great opening image should be. It communicates volumes, but it does it quietly, simply. We’re looking into a small wooden box filled with momentos of a violent past. There’s a war hatchet, a flintlock pistol. Mel Gibson’s voice speaks in voice-over, and it is a voice filled with pain, anguish, and even shame. “I have long feared that my past would catch up with me. Now that it has, it is more than I can bear.” And just like that, we are introduced to the world of Benjamin Martin.
He’s a father, husband to a recently deceased wife. There’s a somber beauty to the early moments he spends tending her grave that puts me in mind of William Munney’s few stolen moments at the grave of his wife in UNFORGIVEN. There’s a bit of levity at the beginning with Martin trying to build a rocking chair, but considering how willing Gibson was to indulge his hambone in BRAVEHEART, this scene is restrained, modestly funny. It humanizes him without taking away any of the weight of the character.
It’s important that he not be seen as funny or even slightly less than dead serious. The movie gets down to business in no time when Martin is summoned into Charlottesville, S.C., the nearest major city to his home, as part of a vote on whether to enter the Revolution or not. The debate here is smart, and it does a wonderful job of drawing us into the time, realizing the emotions that controlled the day. Martin makes an impassioned plea with those gathered to not go to war, to avoid it at all costs. He doesn’t hide behind principles, either. His motive is naked. He doesn’t want to lose his children, and he doesn’t want them to lose their father.
Family is the heart of this film. In some ways, this is the first time I’ve seen a filmmaker try to paint any real sense of community in colonial times. These people aren’t just united by a dream of freedom from the king or talk of a new world; they are bound by geography, and they have as many quarrels and skirmishes and quirks and joys and tears as any extended family would. When war comes to South Carolina, the price is terrible, too much for many to bear. Martin watches as his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) enlists against his wishes. He watches as Gabriel goes off to fight in the infantry, putting himself directly in harm’s way. Martin is powerless, and the toll that takes on him is enormous and obvious. What’s not so obvious is exactly why Martin is so petrified by war.
The key to that particular secret lie in the events that took place years before at Fort Wilderness. Whatever happened, men approach Martin everywhere to shake his hand or buy him a drink. He is a legendary fighter, a warrior with a ferocious reputation. He is also fighting that part of himself with everything he’s got, wrestling to not be whatever he was. He fights it in himself and in his sons. He wants nothing more to do with violence.
But, of course, it finds its way to him. Gabriel finds his way home after a nearby battle. Soon, the battle itself spills onto the property. The work here by director of photography Caleb Deschanel is luminous, spectacular. This is as beautiful as any film you’ll see in the theater this year. Watching this ancient style of warfare play out against the purple woods in the darkest hour of the night is strangely lovely, even at its most horrible. Martin can’t help himself; he opens his home to the wounded of both sides, he and his family all doing their best to ease pain, prevent death.
Into the midst of this rides Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Like Joaquin Phoenix in GLADIATOR, Isaacs has the difficult task here of creating a villain that manages to be both human and monstrous, never crossing the line into cartoon. It’s not easy to play these characters. Thankfully, Robert Rodat’s screenplay doesn’t offer up an easy characterization. Instead, Tavington is a man of petty pride and irrational fury, a man whose thoughtless actions in one particular place on one particular afternoon set into motion a chain of events that destroys not just one life or one family or even one town. Instead, Tavington is at the center of a massive ripple of misery that rips a hole in the heart of a fledgling country. War is shown here not as something to be relished or in which to find glory. Instead, war is a cancer, eating the body of a community, leaving nothing but death in its wake.
In moment after moment, Mel Gibson quietly raises the stakes for himself as an actor. After a piece of work like this, it’s going to be next to impossible to accept it if Mel phones something in or coasts on charm. His Martin is a complex soul laid bare. To me, his work here reminds me of the phenomenal work Jeff Bridges has done in films like FEARLESS and THE FISHER KING. There’s a raw, broken, wounded animal quality to Gibson that is unforgettable. It’s some of the finest acting of his career. When he finally unleashes the anger and the violence he has so carefully kept in check, he is a vision of Hell on earth, and there is a moment he shares with his sons that is undeniably shattering. They see him for the worst of what he is, and to complicate things, they see him for the worst of what they can be. They are introduced to death, face-to-face, and they can’t deny that it is in their blood.
You’re going to hear people who try to compare this film to BRAVEHEART. I cannot state strongly enough that anyone who makes such a lazy, half-assed comparison does not deserve your attention beyond that point. This film has absolutely, 100% nothing to do with BRAVEHEART thematically. They are completely different films. To my mind, this is the better of the two movies, and it’s not a hard decision for me to make. As much as I love John Toll’s photography and as much as I enjoy the rowdy, raucous life of the battle sequences, too much of BRAVEHEART failed for me because of bizarre tone choices. Maybe I was just spoiled young by Monty Python, but I found the whole first 30 minutes of BRAVEHEART to be borderline hysterical. With THE PATRIOT, though, Emmerich emerges as a confident storyteller, professional without being intrusive, poised at the most important moments. He never succumbs to the visual excess of the most egregious of his peers (COUGH, michaelbaysimonwestrennyharlin, COUGH). In fact, he shows admirable restraint in moments that almost beg for flourish. His battle sequences are horrific at times, but more than that… they’re fascinating. Take the cannonballs, for example. We all know about cannonballs, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the damage one does before. I’ve slept on the Chicamauga battlefields in the south, and I’ve seen what these things look like. My only point of reference for them in action, though, is images from films. When you see Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam shoot a cannonball back and forth harmlessly, catching it in their cannons, shooting it back, you don’t get any sense of these as weapons of horrible destructive force. When you see Baron Munchausen ride a cannonball, you don’t think about the fact that one could take your head off. In THE PATRIOT, there are startling images of graphic violence, but they are completely necessary. In fact, without them, the film ceases to be the moral exercise it is. It is the inclusion of these images, not the potential exclusion of them, that makes this film so moral.
There’s another film you may hear THE PATRIOT compared to, and that’s GLADIATOR. It’s almost unavoidable since they’re both massively-scaled period pieces with startling battle scenes. I think they are completely separate types of films, and comparison will only fail them both. GLADIATOR is the movie for battle junkies. If you’re going to these films because you want the visceral kick of battle and you want to feel it close-up, then Ridley Scott is the man. Yes, GLADIATOR carries an emotional wallop, but it is still ultimately a revenge story, brilliantly told. THE PATRIOT strives for something more, though, and I think there’s real greatness in that striving.
There’s a brand of film that Harry has accused me of not having any tolerance for in the past, and that’s patriotic films, pure Americana. Maybe it’s because I have spent most of my life post-Watergate. Maybe it’s growing up in the shadow of Vietnam and having a father who served there. Maybe it’s just the nature of my generation. Whatever the case, I have always had trouble with what I have seen as the Disney-ification of our history, this blanket acceptance that everything American is right. I have always railed against the concept that we forged this nation with clean hands. I have always been cynical about the various concept of patriotism.
But as I sat in this theater in Orange County on Tuesday night, all that fell away. What I watched was a story about sacrifice, about the difference between revenge and righteous anger, and about the value of family and home. It’s a film that respects the sanctity of what we as Americans take for granted every day. Maybe there’s some irony in a German filmmaker finally breaking through this cast-iron heart of mine and reaching this pure and proud place. For the first time, I understood the full weight of the decision that we as a country made when the Declaration of Independence was drafted. I walked out of that theater genuinely proud to have inherited the freedoms that thousands of Benjamin Martins fought and suffered to guarantee me. This July, prepare to be moved by a film that is far deeper, far more poetic, and far greater than I ever expected it could be. “Moriarty” out.