"The Patriot"

This Mel Gibson star vehicle is big, bloody and dumb -- do we really need the director to explain his ham-fisted messages?

Published December 7, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"The Patriot"
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson
Columbia/Tristar; widescreen (2.35:1)
Director and producer commentary, documentary featurettes, photo gallery

That "squish-squish" sound you hear throughout "The Patriot" is Roland Emmerich milking our collective feelings about wartime atrocities as if they were one giant swollen teat. Young soldiers decapitated by cannonballs, children shot in plain view of their families, a whole town's worth of people rounded up and burned alive in their own church: Emmerich's Revolutionary War epic has no shame. He wants to make sure we know that lives were lost, sometimes in a grisly fashion, in the great and noble war for independence. But he doesn't want it to look too ugly; hence he enlisted astonishingly gifted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to give his movie a pleasantly elegant sheen. Even the blood looks clean.

Of course, "The Patriot" is mostly a vehicle for Mel Gibson to dash about in his queue and knee breeches, holding a patched and tattered American flag aloft. (At one point he uses its staff to gore a British officer's horse; we mustn't burn this great symbol of our nation, or even let it touch the ground, but it's supposedly OK to use it as a murder weapon.) Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a hardworking widower farmer who has seen his share of bitter battles but who at first resists joining the Revolution: He's more concerned about raising his seven children. His eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger, in a deftly restrained performance for such a heavy-handed film), disgusted by his father's indifference, defiantly enlists. When another one of Benjamin's sons is shot by an evil British colonel (Jason Isaacs), he breaks down and joins the fray.

"The Patriot" is occasionally rousing in a sick way. When Gibson, who has just lost one son and is in danger of losing another, grabs two of his remaining boys and sets out with his muskets and tomahawk (a relic from his old-time Indian-fighting days) to track down the baddie soldiers, you can't help wanting to see him waste the redcoat muthafuckas. But the warm glow that that moment evokes isn't a rush of patriotism; it's just adrenaline. Benjamin is motivated less by high-minded principles than a desire for revenge. "The Patriot" isn't really about patriotism at all, beyond its ham-fisted assertion that "our children are the future." As he plays Benjamin, Gibson is less a freedom fighter than a vigilante, a Charles Bronson for the History Channel set.

There's a mess of extras on "The Patriot," including a visual-effects interactive featurette (which isn't even particularly interactive). Part of the featurette is a segment called "How a Patriot Loses His Head," which shows us the aforementioned cannonball decapitation no fewer than a dozen times. (Ah, history comes to life!) The "True Patriots" featurette touts the historical authenticity of "The Patriot" but focuses mainly on the costumes: Various members of the picture's crew attest to costume designer Deborah Scott's fussiness over gaiters, cuff buttons and so forth.

Emmerich's running commentary (he's joined by one of the movie's producers, Dean Devlin) may be the deadliest extra of all. He explicates the movie's themes as they unfold before us -- as if he, Gibson and screenwriter Robert Rodat hadn't already hammered them into our consciousness like so many clumsy hobnails. Over a scene in which Benjamin talks with his young sons, Emmerich babbles, "You always respect your father, but in those times it was even stronger because I think there was, you know, some authority; it was very important." The overt message of "The Patriot" is that it's still important to respect our elders and to listen to the lessons of history. And if you're good, you might even get to see a guy's head get blown off.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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