This is an archive of one of the earliest Looking Closer reviews. I keep it as a souvenir of the early days (although I hope I’ve learned a thing or two about writing since then).

The Patriot is an ambitious epic, exhausting more for the emotional toll than for its running time.

Mel Gibson inhabits the character of Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Martin with admirable physicality and emotional range. After suffering a personal attack by the British, Martin struggles to control his rage as he leads effective counterattacks on them. The story that unfolds is episodic and formulaic, with few surprises. But it is packed with full-scale battles, sneaky rifle shooting in the woods, and risky strategizing between desperate men. The movie will be a thrill for audiences who like their heroes big and strong, their tragedies multiple and devastating, and their movies simple and straightforward.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for anything philosophically, intellectually, or historically enlightening, the waters here are pretty thin. It only tells us things we already know, and it repeats those simple truths often and loudly.

A Good Strong Hero

Popular culture has become obsessed with de-mythologizing history’s admirable men and women. It is a cynical age. One can hardly imagine what a new biopic on Abraham Lincoln or George Washington would look like. It seems like the only interesting detail about Thomas Jefferson, according to recent re-tellings, is that he slept with a slave girl. Modern art and entertainment is preoccupied with discrediting the honor of great men, or justifying the crimes that made them notorious. The prevalent perspective is that greatness and morality are relative and a matter of interpretation. We make ourselves feel better about our own indiscretions, or those of our current leaders, if we can say “Well, the great men weren’t really so great.”

I must give The Patriotcredit for striving to give us an admirable national hero… a man who puts his life on the line for family and country. It’s good that the big screen still has room for heroes who honestly and wholeheartedly strive to be good men. Seeing the good and the bad in a hero can provide some balanced perspective, but I prefer to zoom in on a character’s strengths rather than his weaknesses.

However, I must also add that The Patriot, although it has a well-balanced, flawed hero, swings too close to Nation-worship. It is so caught up in its own salute to one man’s nobility, and to the glory of men who fought for freedom, that very little rings true or honest. Early America is painted with too soft a brush. There are, I am informed, historically documented instances of British soldiers as brutal as this film’s villain. There were slaves who have been freed, happily continuing to serve their masters. And there were heroes. But this film gathers these exceptions together into a bundle for the sake of arresting drama. The result is a skewed and misleading portrait of the war and the times.

An Idealized World

The film’s greatest technical achievement, its collection of battle sequences, is not necessarily something worth boasting over. There are many prolonged, slow-motion battle sequences that flaunt authentic weapons and innumerable convincing slow-mo deaths. Director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, “Independence Day”) likes to slow down the movie’s epic battles, so audiences can appreciate the exquisite details of the bloody conflicts. While his hero is conscience-stricken about killing, Emmerich sure enjoys serving it up in generous helpings.

Off the battlefield, The Patriot looks more like adventure-novel illustrations than a historic recreation. Our heroes walk through nothing but the most gorgeous scenery. Their clothes never look lived in. They exist in rooms that are free of dust or signs of regular activity. It reminds me of a history play at an elementary school. And the dialogue provided for the characters by screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) isn’t much more interesting. They speak in bland and ponderous conversations, without any hint of personality or dialect. It makes you long for a script revision by the Coen Brothers or Billy Bob Thornton.

But it’s not just the simplicity that bothers me. It is the manipulation. The film doesn’t hesitate to grab the most blunt instruments to make you cry, to make you angry, to make you cheer, to make you so emotional that you can’t think straight.

Making Sure the Audience Cheers

Right away, Colonel William Tavington (Jason Issacs), the British officer who leads the offense against our hero, is shown to be a sneering rebel, a madman with authority, a sadistic butcher who does not follow the codes of British military conduct. He throws down the gauntlet early, murdering a young boy, one of Martin’s sons. Later he smilingly rounds up a whole village and burns them to death. All he needs is a big black cape and heavy, distorted breathing.

It’s true, there were some heinous war crimes in the Revolutionary War. This does not make it fair, however, to stack the deck in this film and call it “historicism”. Making Darth Tavington the sole focus of our aggression turns our sympathies with inappropriate force and prejudice against the British. Other Brits — including the orderly Cornwallis — are shown grumbling about Tavington’s methods. But Tavington is still the central representative of the British in this film. Everything leans toward giving him what he has coming.

This burning of the villagers in a church is, according to a recent article on, a crime that the Nazis committed once, not something the British did. Having used “artistic license” so freely, Emmerich and Rodat are sure to have the audience up in arms, shouting for the death of Darth Tavington. No need to waste time with a historically accurate portrayal when you can just embellish and make the enemy like the Nazis at their peak. That’ll rile the crowd up real good.

Emmerich doesn’t stop there. He’s going to get us teary-eyed if he has to sucker-punch us to do it. So he brings up slavery, something we all agree on, something we all can get emotional about. But he oversimplifies that too.

The one black member of the militia is nothing more than a token here; he doesn’t get any lines except as the spokesman for slaves who dream of a free world. The “slaves” that work for Benjamin Martin here have been conveniently “set free” and are so enamored of his spotless family that they serve him “of their own free will.” Later, when the Revolutionary War is over, they can’t wait to start building a “New World” … by voluntarily continuing their current servitude instead of pursuing their own families, their own lives.

In fact, any black character in The Patriot is there either to make inspiring remarks about slavery and freedom, or to further accentuate how great the hero is. We don’t have to deal with a single, suffering slave in the whole bunch. Once again, the movie is providing us with fuel for emotions, not something to think about, not evidence of the more difficult and complex realities of the time. It is true that there were slaves who chose to serve their masters freely. But here again, The Patriot has given us an exception to the rule because it is more palatable to the audience and heightens the emotional drama. If Martin was portrayed as having slaves that forced us to confront the reality of actual slavery, we wouldn’t like him as much. It would have made him more… human. That would have run the risk of asking the audience to think for themselves.

Any storytelling that pretends something complex is actually something simple is irresponsible storytelling and bad art. It is on the complex issue of whether violent retaliation was the best method that Emmerich is most manipulative.

Thou Shalt Violently Retaliate

One scene best sums it up: When a reverend is ministering to his congregation, a soldier walks in and asks men to join him and enlist in the armed resistance. The reverend, interrupted and annoyed, questions whether this is appropriate timing. It is, after all, a worship service. He is quickly admonished. Within seconds, the apologetic minister is shown awkwardly fumbling for his own rifle. “A shepherd must protect his flock,” he says, rushing out to shoot the British. Our heroes smile…the poor fool has decided to be a man. The music crescendoes. Clearly, in this movie’s moral structure, anybody who hesitates to respond to the British immediately and with violence is misguided. In this saga of men fighting for a free country, freedom of opinion is frowned on. The reverend is not afforded a free will.

Be careful. The movie already has you cheering for the things you agree with. Are you sure, though, that you agree with this? Is this particular issue so black and white?

Nobody gets to question the morality of the colonists’ violent opposition…except Benjamin Martin. But his hesitation at the film’s beginning is shown as fear and worry over his family, not a true moral conviction about violence. Later, when the violence has hit home, he says he is ashamed about doing nothing. Again, we are told that the cost of warfare makes it a moral imperative to become violently involved.

There are often other ways of dealing with oppression. If there aren’t, why didn’t Christ urge the oppressed Jews to take up arms? I’m not saying pacificism was the colonists’ best option; I believe, though, we should respect and consider the thoughts of those who examine other ways of retaliating.

Mel Gibson as… Mel Gibson?

A fellow critic has persuaded me that The Patriot is a more responsible film than Braveheart. (The hero actually resists the pull to get revenge.) But because it follows the basic Braveheart formula, there’s not much new here. The battlefields look the same, except for the uniforms and weapons. And the music sounds the same… big, patriotic, and John-Williamsish (this time it IS John Williams.) In spite of his attempts to vary his roles (Payback) Gibson has become predictable in action movies. They become countdowns to a bloody showdown and a pious speech. It worked best in his performance as Hamlet. (He’ll never find a better screenwriter than Shakespeare!)

Benjamin Martin, in this film’s portrayal, is a dutiful man, bound by honor to family and country. But he is haunted by his past war crimes, and his conscience is strong. We do see one particular moment when that old monster within him reawakens against the British, and for a moment the film comes to life with a frightening brilliance. Our hero act inappropriately. But even this loses its sting, merely because of who we are watching. It might be a character flaw for Benjamin Martin, but it’s what Mel Gibson does best. As any Gibson Guy must do, Martin remains restrained until the breaking point. Then the camera zooms in on Gibson’s best trick… the eyes dull, the face drains of expression, and the animal takes over. Mad Max has returned.

Not only that, but Benjamin’s eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who provides the obligatory love story (another important part of the film’s well-worn formula), appears to make his debut as the next Mel Gibson. We love Gabriel because he’s an echo of classic Gibson…the rebel with a cause who gets the girl, has his own revenge score to settle, and his own glorious bloody showdown. Two Mad Maxes for the price of one!

So if you want another Mel Gibson-brand epic, with simple, dramatic, noble gestures… this is your movie.

But if you want a truly inspiring film about war, nobility, and freedom, rent Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. With less than half the budget, and with language that’s delicious to recite, Branagh will inspire you to be a patriot of great character. Roland Emmerich knows a cannon can do a lot of damage, but Shakespeare knew that a well-crafted speech can inspire a thousand soldiers.

Forgive me if I am a bit impatient with this film. I am weary of seeing the same movie, with minor variations, played over and over again. Sure, these are moral heroes and detestable villains. But so what? This year’s Gladiator had a little life in its dialogue, and a few pleasing new twists, but, like The Patriot, it still boiled down to this: “You killed someone in my family… so I will, eventually, impale you on something.” In the name of freedom. Of nobility. Of America. Of Ireland. Of Rome. Or whatever. It all boils down to an endorsement of violence as a way to resolve differences. Today’s history lesson: History goes on teaching us nothing.