Mel Gibson must be an action hero; he likes to do things the hard way. Sure, he could have made a couple of 30-second spots advising the American public to vote for G.W. Bush. Instead, he’s poured his passion into a bullying right-wing treatise in feature-film form that runs so long it will test the patience of people who sat through last winter’s spate of bladder-busters.
Mel himself leaves us no doubt as to his heroic stature. The film, after all, is named after him—in the battle for Colonial independence, his character, Benjamin Martin, is not a patriot but “the Patriot.” Gibson makes sure that director Roland Emmerich licks his dusty boots in deference to His Singlehandedness in every shot, so The Patriot’s absurdities begin to pile up fast. Martin begins the film a humble widower and family man, parenting the heck out of his seven little cliches—I mean, children—all the way from the hotheaded eldest hunk, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), to the little blond angel who hasn’t spoken a word since her mother’s death. He does fun-dad things such as trying unsuccessfully to build himself a rocking chair and guiltily tucking away the Cherokee war ax he swiped after leading the slaughter at Fort Wilderness during the French and Indian War, where his aggression made him a battlefield legend.
But even before his Paul-on-the-road-to-Valley Forge conversion, he’s photographed against gorgeous vistas and symbolic sunsets and other clues to a Way of Life Worth Preserving. When Martin gives a noninterventionist speech at a town meeting, the camera grovels around his navel, gazing heroically upward while he talks rousingly about his distrust of government and desire to be left alone. Martin makes it clear that it’s not principles that compel him to defend his precious family’s freedom; only self-interest forces him to act.
Obligingly, along comes a foppish, sneering, condescending cartoon of an English colonel (Jason Isaacs), who trots up to the Martin homestead, which is being used as a temporary hospital, puts a bullet in Martin’s second-eldest son, and then drawls about what fun it was. Although the times may have been different, the idea is the same: From isolationist farmer to hot-blooded soldier, this time it’s personal.
Rogue that he is, Martin doesn’t join the colonial such-as-it-was army, but gets up a gin-u-wine militia from among a loose cabal of shaggy-haired, hard-drinking middle-aged men. The militia proceeds to terrorize the British with its guerrilla tactics, wilderness ambushes, and scruffy, clever ruses. The increasingly frustrated British cannot understand why these lowly colonists refuse to fight a gentlemanly war, which involves both sides’ lining up in neat rows and agreeing to mow each other down.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, put away the history books with a big sigh. Benjamin Martin and his rogue fighting tactics are loosely based on those of the legendary Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, and the venom-dripping Col. Tavington could pass for the notorious Banastre “the Butcher” Tarleton in bad light, but what the film does with what little history it nods to is codswallop of the first swallop.
But the most offensive thing is the lack of ideology. Martin heads up a period fable about the modern disenfranchised voter. (By the by, “taxation without representation” is barely murmured in the film, despite being the, like, cause of the war and all.) The Patriot would feel no different if the character were transposed to modern times and joined the Reform Party after a tree-hugging liberal burned his SUV. Martin goes to war because he’s a dad who wants to keep his promise, not because he desires to be a free citizen. Worse, he goes to war against the British specifically because they are such rotters, dripping with class superiority, sadistic, vain, and in thrall to delicacies like fine port and powdered wigs.
In casting the Revolutionary War as an uprising of the blue-collar white male against the threat of foreigners and girlymen, The Patriot not only debases the real events but leaches out any subsidiary interest the story might stir. It’s so tidy, so round, so Hollywood, so personality-driven that there’s nothing more to wonder. The consequences of the plot’s premise are truly egregious: The Patriot implicitly claims that if the British had been nice and fought fair, the colonists would not have rebelled; that action, not principles, should lead to action; that it’s better to preserve a comfy way of life than to create a new world.
The Patriot’s most prominent motif is its shamelessness, although carelessness comes in a close second. Martin is shown to be sensitive and commanding with animals, quite the amateur carpenter, and a leader of disenfranchised men—he’s St. Francis, Jesus, and Jesse Ventura all rolled into one and given a flag to run with in dust-swirling, silent-screaming slow motion for his final showdown with Tavington. (There are touches of Rambo as well, in the film’s desire to go back and fix a messy war.) The details are laughably pat: At the first town meeting, strains of “Yankee Doodle” and cries of “Down with King George” fill the air. And the script! Gabriel’s girlfriend makes a speech in her Valley Girl accent urging him to “act upon the beliefs which you so strongly believe in.” And this works! How heroic is Martin? His faithful black farmworkers aren’t really slaves—they just “work the land.”
The Patriot is right-wing hogwash bathed in an olde-timey golden glow, but it also manages to be horrifically bloody and violent. The question of whether Hollywood favors a liberal agenda is of no interest to me (sure it does), but the protest vote has no chance when its representative is as blatant, soggy, smug, and repellent as this. Characters repeat “Stay the course” talismanically, as if Dana Carvey had never happened, and the final sequence is so pompous and overblown it begs to be remade as a Farrelly brothers parody. But I guess The Patriot is someone’s idea of democracy, or at least target marketing, at work—now the disgruntled, home-schooling, SUV-buying, pro-militia-but-cautious-suburban-family-values working man has a movie to call his own. CP