The Patriot

While formulating my review of “The Patriot,” I kept replaying The Pretender’s song “It’s A Thin Line Between Love & Hate” over and over in my head. I really wanted to love this movie about how one man’s personal vendetta during the Revolutionary War inspired the South Carolina locals to rise up and defeat General Cornwallis and his troops.

patriotI really hated what ended up on the screen, a mawkish, endless parade of cliche’s, all delivered by director Roland Emmerich and writer Robert Rodat with the sensitivity of a thrown brick. There have been objections to the film’s historical accuracy. The real objection should be that the filmmakers have made a bad film.

You feel sorry for Mel Gibson, who gives a noble performance that is both strong and courageous. As Benjamin Martin, a widowed father, farmer, and former war hero, Gibson has some fine moments. Gibson is especially electric when Martin’s peaceful life is shattered by the encroaching British troops. One moment he’s making rocking chairs, the next he’s hacking a redcoat to death with a hatchet.

Rodat and Emmerich fail to do any of this with subtlety, hammering home each and every plot point as if their life depended on it. Their desperation ruins all but a handful of moments. We’re expected to grieve with Martin when one of his son’s is killed, yet the moment is so melodramatic and overblown it loses any emotional balance. Adding insult to injury, every one of the film’s dramatic peaks are repeated twice.

If “The Patriot” were a two hour movie, this would be forgivable. At two hours and forty minutes, it is inexcusable. Just when you think the train is going to pull into the station, the conductor puts the damn thing into reverse.

It doesn’t help that the characters make speeches rather than talk to each other. The worst example takes place in a church where a young woman’s rousing words are enough to rally the troops. You sit and cringe as the camera catches each and every face, knowing full well that as soon as John Williams’ bombastic score hits a crescendo, she will have them on her side.

As a screenwriter, Rodat is by-the-numbers. His dialogue is flat and elementary. Rodat’s script for “Saving Private Ryan” benefited from the direction of Steven Spielberg, who knows how to shade the colors into something more interesting. Emmerich is a paint-by-numbers director. He puts blue where blue is supposed to be, never once considering that a little red might make things interesting.

This approach works well in science-fiction/fantasy films like “Independence Day” and “Stargate” where the characters and situations are clear cut. The characters in “The Patriot” should be much more complex, and trapping them on one emotional level is disastrous. It reduces most of the cast to stereotypes.

The worst is Jason Issac’s icy Colonel William Tavington, a British soldier so vicious and cruel the only thing he’s missing is a Snidley Whiplash mustache. Tavington is so over-the-top that he becomes laughable. He’s the catalyst of the plot, yet every time he rides into frame he stops it dead.

Handsome Heath Ledger fares better as Gibson’s oldest son Gabriel, a young man intent on joining the Continental Army. He’s most impressive keeping a straight face while trying to juggle an awkward “Romeo & Juliet” plot thread. Doomed lovers are so passe, and even though Ledger approaches the material with earnest, he’s sabotaged by the obviousness of the situation.

Poor Joely Richardson. She’s all dressed up for the prom with nowhere to go. As Martin’s sister- in-law, Richardson has less to do here than John Rocker at a New York Gay Pride parade. She’s nothing more than scenery, a parchment-thin attempt at creating a love interest for Martin.

The rest of the cast are relegated to types. The French Army Major (Tcheky Karyo), the bold Reverend (Rene Auberjonois), the idealistic young son (Gregory Smith) whose hobby of sculpting lead war figurines allows his father to avenge his death by melting them down into bullets. Oh please!

“The Patriot” is top-heavy in symbolism. The filmmakers shove it down our throats every chance they get. They don’t trust us to get it, so they wave flags and light flares. Rodat piles tragedy after tragedy on poor Martin that you begin to think he’s a Kennedy.

The film is at its best when Martin and his militia overtake the British through surprise attacks. These moments, and those set in the swamp hideout, actually have some life in them. I wish the film had more moments like these.

The film looks as artificial as the characters behave. The combat scenes look staged to the point of being distracting. Instead of delivering a visceral punch, they become tiresome. There is a lot of carnage on the battlefield, most of it presented to evoke a reaction rather than an emotion. Sure, it’s shocking when someone gets their head blown off by a cannonball. It might have meant something if the recipient were someone we actually cared about.

Emmerich isn’t a bad director, he’s just out of his league here. He has a hard time fine-tuning drama, and that is what trips up “The Patriot.” Until he learns that big isn’t necessarily better, maybe he better stay away from films that require an emotional core.

REVOLUTIONARY BOREGibson is fine but The Patriot lacks spine


Mel Gibson, Heather Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Issacs, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Donal Logue and Tom Wilkinson in a film directed by Roland Emmerich. Rated R. 158 Minutes.


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