Mel GibsonAdam BaldwinChris CooperPeter Woodward
The Patriot
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Robert Rodat
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, historical
Country: Germany, USA
Actor: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones, Joey D. Vieira, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jamieson Price, Peter Woodward, Grahame Wood, Beatrice Bush, Shan Omar Huey, Hank Stone, Kirk Fox, Jack Moore, Mark Twogood, Colt Romberger, Terry Layman, Shannon Eubanks, Bill Roberson, Charles Black, Andy Stahl, Kristian Truelsen
Format: 165 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 4 February 2012
I'd always thought of this as Braveheart 2. Mel Gibson kills evil Englishmen in a three-hour historical epic, with follow-up projects that presumably included "Gandhi 2: This Time It's Personal" and "Sod It, Let's Just Nuke London". Braveheart though was a much more personal project. It was also directed by Gibson and won big at the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, beyond which I'm not qualified to comment because I haven't seen it.
The Patriot though is directed by Roland Emmerich. I've always been fuzzy on the difference between him and Michael Bay. Let's look at his filmography:
1. The Noah's Ark Principle (1984) -- science fiction film, written and directed by Roland Emmerich as his thesis at the Hochschule fur Fernsehen und Film Munchen.
2. Joey (1985) -- again in German
3. Hollywood-Monster (1987) -- English/German horror-comedy, went straight to video in America
4. Moon 44 (1990) -- apparently rips off Star Wars, Blade Runner and Aliens
5. Universal Soldier (1992) -- Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren
6. Stargate (1994) -- spawned a seventeen-year SF franchise
7. Independence Day (1996) -- come on, you know
8. Godzilla (1998) -- one day I will watch this
9. The Patriot (2000)
10. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) -- Ice Age apocalypse movie
11. 10,000 BC (2008) -- William Hartnell gives fire to the Tribe of... no, wait.
12. 2012 (2009) -- earthquake and drown-the-world apocalypse movie
13. Anonymous (2011) -- Shakespeare conspiracy film
Didn't he direct Pearl Harbor? No, that was Bay. Anyway, both can churn out blockbusters and make crazy money. Regardless of their critical merits, that's a difficult thing to do and as a result they're massively rich and successful. Job done. The only remaining question is whether you'd be willing to see their films at gunpoint.
(Moment of terror: did Michael Bay direct anything in 2000? Finn checks. No, thank goodness, although oddly he has an acting credit in Coyote Ugly.)
Anyway, The Patriot. It looks pretty. The Oscars thought so too, nominating it for Best Cinematography along with Best Sound and Best Music, Original Score. It has well respected acting talent supporting of Gibson, including Jason Isaacs, Tom Wilkinson and the late Heath Ledger. It violates history, but no worse than you'll have been expecting and in some ways perhaps less offensively than the likes of U-571 or Anonymous. (Jason Isaacs is a stone-cold monster, yes, but no one's trying to claim that all the British were like him and indeed neither his superiors nor his subordinates are happy with his brutality.)
Mel Gibson meanwhile is a proper old-school movie star and he clearly owns the screen. A few years later he'd mostly retire from screen acting and go mad, but 2000 was one of his biggest as as an actor. He was in four movies, of which three each grossed over 100 million (The Patriot, Chicken Run, What Women Want). Incidentally the fourth was The Million Dollar Hotel, which Gibson described in a press conference before its Australian release as "as boring as a dog's ass." You've got to love a man who says things like that, although not so much when it comes to allegations of homophobia, antisemitism, racism and misogyny. Well, in 2000 that was all in the future.
So the film's good, right? In all the big things, yes. I also didn't find it offensive. On the contrary I was pleasantly surprised by its even-handedness in presenting the different points of view, with Gibson's character being a family man who doesn't want to go to war and early on even looks after the British wounded. "Why do men feel they can justify death?"
My only problem is an elusive one. I didn't feel anything. Everything in the plot is predictable and eventually I was cheering for the bad guys.
Me, I think it's hollow. It's not glaringly so, given the level of talent that Emmerich's recruited to work on it with him, but I didn't care about any of the tragedies. On the contrary, I was having bets with myself on how many of Gibson's children would have to die on the Hollywood altar of Action Hero Grief And Vengeance. Characterisation is "epic", i.e. two-dimensional. Tragedy is perfunctory. It looks great and it's doing all the right things, but the audience is mentally ticking off a plot ingredient checklist. There's only one surprising bit in the film and even that only had me going for twenty seconds. "I didn't expect that guy to die then! Hang on, he's still alive, isn't he? Yup, thought so."
I don't think the great John Williams is always helping either, incidentally, no matter that once again his score was Oscar-nominated. There's a bit at the finale where I noticed it being epic and distancing, which wasn't what the film needed. Emmerich knows how to go big. It's making us feel at the same time that he's having trouble with. I don't want to go overboard on this because at the end of the day these are fine actors who've been given strong material, so you could fairly say that the film maintains a basic high standard. I just think that it's a significant failure for the movie to have me mischievously wishing at the climax that Isaacs would kill Gibson.
The historical stuff doesn't deserve great attention. It feels okay. It's loosely based on historical figures and battles. It's just that the British commit atrocities that appear to have been based on German ones in World War Two rather than anything documented in the 18th century, while Gibson's character isn't even a slaveowner. (Spike Lee came out of this movie fuming.)
There are a few trivial points. Gibson's pre-climax despair is ridiculous, finding his motivation from the sight of the American flag instead of, say, having his friends bring up the subject of Jason Isaacs. (They never even say the guy's name.) However the 18th century battlefield is quite cool, despite being a battle and hence basically dull, because it's so alien to any notions of combat we'd recognise. It's like an alien mating ritual or something.
Overall, I think it's missing something. It's probably either too long or too short. However it's also pretty solid in its way and has a lot to enjoy in the acting, with Tom Wilkinson in particular being as enjoyable as I've ever seen him. Lord Cornwallis is a juicy role and he's well suited to it, with his gentlemanly two-handed scene with Gibson in particular being a delight to watch. Joely Richardson's accent didn't convince me, but on the other hand Jason "Lucius Malfoy" Isaacs is a joy to have on the screen and arguably the film's anti-hero. Heath Ledger also does deceptively well in a big role in which you might nevertheless take him for some Hollywood pretty boy, for instance building a father-son rapport with Gibson.
Besides, I'm afraid I can't help liking Mel Gibson. I know he's become a fruitcake and viewed as toxic by a lot of the industry, but as an actor I think he's the real deal. Check out his bits of rocking chair business here, for instance. Alternatively, as a thought experiment, imagine this film with Kevin Costner.