Like father like son: Gabriel (Ledger) and his dad Benjamin (Gibson) have radically different views of war — but they're just alike, really...
Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a tortured soul, consumed with regret for his atrocious behaviour during the French and Indian War and equally consumed with responsibility for his seven kids now that his wife has died. But this is South Carolina 1776, and the flames of independence are blowing through the Colonies, fuelled by a particularly brutal British colonel (Isaacs). Soon Benjamin must overcome his pacifist ways and fight for Freedom alongside his patriotic son (Ledger) and a band of rag-rag militia.
To the soaring strains of John Williams' score and the mist-enshrouded backlighting of Caleb Deschanel's epic cinematography, Emmerich directs the film as if it isn't contrived pap. Which it is, despite the serious and very powerful subject matter. The problem is the script; Rodat also wrote Saving Private Ryan, and now we can see just how much Spielberg's genius lifted that equally contrived story. Dialog, characters, action and even the plot are simply tools to say something important under the guise of an intimate story about a man reluctantly drawn into the revolution. But it's all manipulative and manufactured. Gibson at least delivers another of his bravely off-centre performances, although he's restrained from cutting loose. Same with everyone else, really. This should have been a significant breakout performance from Ledger, a consistently good young actor who had much more to do in the airy rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (or the terrific thriller Two Hands) than he does here. And fine actors like Cooper and Richardson are criminally underused. Isaacs, on the other hand, is gleefully horrific as the film's sadistic villain. But that fact alone highlights the film's formula: Why in a movie about the American Revolution do we need a single monstrous bad guy? Because Hollywood requires it, that's why. And that's also why he can't die ignominiously on the battlefield, shot by an anonymous bullet. No no! Cue Mel with a conveniently spear-headed Star-Spangled Banner.
[15--violence, themes] 10.Jul.00
US release 30.Jun.00; UK release 14.Jul.00
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