Review of The Patriot

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Patriot is a dandy movie, more specifically a Yankee Doodle Dandy movie.

Visually sweeping and physically staggering, the Revolutionary War saga provokes the gut-level responses of such unapologetic emotional exercises as Titanic, Gladiator and The Green Mile. Historians will sometimes hiss, cynics will definitely snicker, but moviegoers will emphatically cheer.

The film is a high point for Mel Gibson, who gets even more close-ups than Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2. Mr. Gibson earns such treatment with a performance of kinetic energy and unforced sincerity. He has the ability to make stubborn righteousness seem appealing. If the new century requires its own John Wayne (which, according to your perspective, may be a mighty big "if"), Mr. Gibson definitely represents a kinder, gentler variety. By now, we all know him as a bravehearted warrior, and The Patriot adds shading to the image.

The movie also scores points for Heath Ledger, the 21-year-old actor who plays Mr. Gibson's oldest son. His intense, intelligent performance differentiates him from Hollywood's current crop of Ryans and Ethans.

For director Roland Emmerich, The Patriot recovers the ground he lost with the monstrous Godzilla. Mr. Emmerich works with such florid strokes he makes the sainted Steven Spielberg seem like a disciple of restraint. The screenplay for The Patriot, written by Robert Rodat(Saving Private Ryan) aims for a dramatic crescendo roughly every 20 minutes. Mr. Emmerich hits those targets more often than he misses them.

Although the war scenes lack the savage immediacy of those in Saving Private Ryan, the viewer gains graphic knowledge of the damage that cannonballs, tomahawks and muskets can inflict on the human form. Mr. Emmerich splendidly orchestrates the combat scenes to emphasize the difference between the massive, formally trained British troops and the ragged, but fervent, American militia.

Gifted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel photographs the combat with solemn beauty.

The Patriot earns historical status as the first film that truly personalizes the American Revolution. Benjamin Martin (Mr. Gibson) is a stoic South Carolina farmer, haunted by memories of his own brutality as a hero in the French and Indian War. He's now a widower, mourning his departed wife and hoping to raise his seven children in peace.

But when the colonies rebel against British oppression, Benjamin's oldest son Gabriel (Mr. Ledger) rejects his father's pacifist stance and joins the Continental Army. When sadistic British Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) commits atrocities against Benjamin's family, the reluctant hero resorts to crafty guerrilla tactics against the Redcoats.

The film's consistent overstatement provides a perversely admirable unity. Any hint of subtlety would have capsized the mood. Still, the filmmakers often strive too hard for bucolic charm. Benjamin's African-American workers are called "employees," and their backs obviously have never felt the pain of the lash.

And his brood of children are the most harmonious movie siblings since The Sound of Music.

In fact, the R-rated film poses a problem for cautious parents. Benjamin teaches his older sons how to bear weapons and shoot to kill. Yet the film also reflects traditional values in an earnest, nonpedantic manner that young viewers will find easy to accept.

Among the large cast, Mr. Isaacs is a loathsome villain of epic proportions. Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, gives a charming, self-effacing performance as the hero's gentle, courageous sister-in-law.

Chris Cooper is a warm and commanding presence as Benjamin's loyal comrade; after his dynamic turn as the tragic neighbor in American Beauty, his quiet performance here fully demonstrates his range.

Shamelessly manipulative, The Patriot will be accused of preaching to the converted. But, like many great examples of evangelical zeal, it's a terrific slice of showmanship.