"The General's Daughter"

John Travolta's dancing days are definitely over, but who knew his acting days were numbered, too?


Andrew O'Hehir
June 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

OK, so this isn't the movie where one guy in a uniform, veins pulsing in his forehead, fixes another one with his steely gaze and fumes, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" But if you saw that one -- whatever it was called -- you've pretty much seen this one too, along with all the other hackneyed pseudo-noir films of the '90s that dare to rip the shadowy veil of mendacity away from the cesspool of lies and corruption that is the U.S. military establishment. Or whatever. "The General's Daughter" isn't the worst film in the world, but its vision of reality seems so stylized, so fake, that I came out of it wondering whether it has the slightest idea what it's talking about. Its depiction of military life, for all I know, is no more convincing than its clichis about the American South or its voyeuristic and thoroughly confused portrayal of female sexuality.

Army Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is the pissed-off, self-righteous investigator who's always at the center of this kind of movie, and unfortunately his character doesn't go a lot deeper than that outline suggests. We see Brenner undercover (with an atrocious good-ol'-boy accent and a big cigar) as he tracks a nutso militia type hoping to buy illicit weapons, and we see him as himself, soberly investigating a gruesome rape and murder on the Spanish moss-shaded grounds of Fort MacCallum, Ga. But we don't get any sense of who this guy really is or what he believes, why he's in the Army or where his loyalties lie -- crucial issues for the protagonist of a mystery. Early on, a too-obviously nefarious general barks at Brenner, "You're going to have to decide: Are you a soldier or a policeman?" -- as if those categories are mutually exclusive, or that one is much better than the other.

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Like most moviegoers, I've generally rooted for Travolta's comeback, but it's time for producers to realize he's not a strong enough actor to carry a picture by himself. The script, by Christopher Bertolini and Hollywood legend William Goldman (based on a novel by Nelson DeMille), provides Travolta some zingers to deliver in his customary deadpan, but he'd seem pretty lost in the swamp of "The General's Daughter" if it weren't for his, well, size. After visibly battling middle-aged spread in his last few pictures, Travolta has evidently hit the weight room, emerging with shoulders and pecs of almost Schwarzeneggerian scale. I guess he makes a convincing career military man at this weight, but his terpsichorean days, it would seem, are over.

Director Simon West infuses everything at Camp MacCallum, even the indoor spaces, with a shimmering haze, a sort of humid scrim that symbolizes (I guess) the military's tradition of protecting its own at any cost. This is by-the-book Southern Gothic atmosphere, but at least it imparts some visual consistency to a movie whose themes are both cheap and bewildered. West seemed far more comfortable with the outrageous, high-octane action of "Con Air" than he does with a movie that at least in theory depends on building and developing psychological suspense. In fact, the best scene in "The General's Daughter" might be the explosive battle staged at Brenner's houseboat when he's attacked by the right-wing wacko he's pursuing -- which has nothing whatever to do with the main plot.

When Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) turns up naked, spread-eagled and dead on an urban-warfare training ground, Brenner begins to understand that Camp MacCallum has unsavory secrets. For one thing, Elisabeth was the daughter of the camp commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell), an immensely popular officer with one eye on the White House. (I'm afraid that naming the general after the famous mythologist may have been the novelist's or the screenwriters' idea of wit.) He's joined by another investigator, the crisp and likable Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), and "The General's Daughter" spends the next 80 minutes or so titillating us with the possibility that it might shape its numerous leads, clues and shadowy allusions into a coherent plot.

Brenner and Sunhill were apparently once lovers, and their combative relationship often seems like it's about to strike sparks, but never does. The murdered Elisabeth was an expert in psychological warfare, which seems to point the investigation in some sinister directions but is ultimately a red herring. Beneath her air-brushed exterior was a pretty kinky girl -- Brenner and Sunhill find an S/M playroom in her basement, complete with naughty videotapes of Elisabeth and several playmates. We are apparently supposed to think that Elisabeth's sexual proclivities were connected to her death, but the linkage is baffling at best. Like so many Hollywood movies, "The General's Daughter" wants to be lascivious and sanctimonious at the same time. Without giving away anything crucial, here's how the plot works: Women who are the victims of sexual violence turn into freakazoid perverts likely to get killed. But it's really not their fault! Our sexist society has forsaken them.

Some fine actors are trapped in the overly archetypal roles of the supporting cast. From the first moment we see Cromwell's pinched nose and sunken cheeks, we know Gen. Campbell is not the American hero he's supposed to be. But is he the true villain, or is it his maniacally loyal aide (Clarence Williams III), Elisabeth's nervous, chain-smoking superior (a queeny, undisciplined performance from James Woods) or the base's head M.P. (a fine, understated job by Timothy Hutton)? Maybe "The General's Daughter" is trying to argue that the hypocrisy of military culture murdered Elisabeth, but its own hypocrisy is so thick -- as is its ponderous murkiness -- that by the end it has lost any ability to say or mean anything.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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