Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Patriot

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JULY 3, 2000: 

D: Roland Emmerich; with Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Tom Wilkinson, Lisa Brenner, Donol Logue, Adam Baldwin. (R, 164 min.)

Inexplicably, "we, the people" have never been big fans of movies about the American Revolutionary War. The Patriot, however, appears to be the movie that will break that historical jinx. With its epic scale but human scope, a popular megastar who appears in practically every scene, and a maverick directing and producing team who specialize in creating summer holiday-weekend blockbusters (Godzilla, Independence Day, StarGate), The Patriot seems a sure-fire bet for setting off some box-office fireworks. Thematically, this 1776-set film is perfect for the Fourth of July weekend. Gibson plays the fictional Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina plantation owner and widower with seven children. Although Martin is a former hero of the French and Indian War, his current circumstances make him reluctant to side with the colonists' declaration of war against England. "I'm a parent; I haven't the luxury of principles," declares Martin with conviction. His eldest son (Ledger), however, is an ardent believer in the revolutionary cause and enlists to fight against his father's wishes. Eventually, the war arrives at Martin's doorstep and involves his family in a way that he can no longer sidestep. Still, his participation is based on personal vengeance rather than political ideology. And here's where the movie begins taking the shape of Braveheart: The Colonial Years ­ the story of a man who fights to avenge a dead family member and goes on to become a great patriotic leader of his people and mythic bogeyman to his opponents. Certainly, Martin's fighting style is little more sophisticated than the 12th-century Braveheart's. Using muskets and tomahawks, Martin's militiamen advance a more guerrilla-style of combat, which works wonders against the linear-advance formations of the British. The film makes the issues surrounding the differing warfare strategies accessible and understandable, while never downplaying the gruesomeness of combat. Shocking images of the devastation caused by cannon balls and tomahawks are vividly displayed, and despite a 164-minute running time, the battle scenes never grow tiresome. This is due in no small measure to the film's emphasis on the human dimension with images of things like Martin continually melting down his son's toy soldiers to make bullets in a sort of reverse logic of the biblical dictum to beat swords into plowshares. The Patriot's high point is the elaborate trick Martin plays on General Cornwallis (Wilkinson), but even here, a joke regarding a dog gets the biggest laugh. And while much emotional pull is attached to the angelic faces of the children and a couple of love-interest subplots, they are all token representations without much narrative drive. This is Mel Gibson's story all the way. The other characters are all historical necessities or character archetypes. Historically, the film downplays the colonialists' warfare among themselves and tends to present them inaccurately as a front united against the British. Its depictions of slavery are also tinted by its backward glance, although its side journey to the Gullah Islands is an intriguing bit of cultural history. Toward the end of the movie, as Martin moves through his troops waving the colonial flag, he is as rousing a symbol to the audience as he is to his men on the battlefield. Both a patriot and a good family man, a bloody fighter and a gentle soul, Benjamin Martin personifies the yuppie ideal.

3 Stars

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