Mel Gibson stars as Benjamin Martin, a reluctant hero who is swept into the American Revolution when the war reaches his home and threatens his family. A hero of the fierce French and Indian conflict, Martin had renounced fighting forever to raise his family in peace. But when the British arrive at his South Carolina home and endanger what he holds most dear, Martin takes up arms alongside his idealistic son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), and leads a brave rebel militia into battle against a relentless and overwhelming English army. In the process, he discovers the only way to protect his family is to fight for a young nation’s freedom.
First, the good news: the film depicts the honor, bravery, sacrifice, courage and determination our forefathers displayed while facing down tyrannical King George and his trained army. Also, emotional threads weave throughout the story, binding people together. For instance, one farmer who thinks little of the black race comes to realize that a man of color can be just as brave and self-sacrificing as he. Another example comes into focus as our hero fights alongside a French officer, a member of the army he battled in the French and Indian War. The film’s populace is depicted as a God-worshipping people, steadfast in their beliefs and willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors. In other words, they are people of character. The lead raises his children to believe in God and on two occasions we see him praying, asking for forgiveness. When I first saw actor Rene Auberjonois, who is renown for playing comical, sometimes effeminate roles, playing a minister, I worried that, once again, a church leader would be portrayed as a pious hypocrite. I was relieved to find this movie preacher to be a true hero. And get this: Americans are the good guys. Who’d have thought? The set design, costumes, music and technical achievements each deserve extra credit for a breath-taking visual look and sound that gives the film a substance and purity. Now, for the disappointing elements: There are several symbolic moments that are more corny than emotionally stirring. Example: Benjamin melts down his dead son’s metal soldiers, making bullets out of them. Okay, they needed to make their ammunition out of whatever they could muster, but it doesn’t take Karnac the Magnificent to foresee that the last toy soldier will be melted into the final bullet for the final battle against the final bad guy. Symbolism is an element that should be sparingly used, and with a degree of abstraction when artistically expressing the intangible. It loses its strength when it loses its complexity. Here, each attempt at allegory is so blatant that it becomes comical. The acting, although sincere, lacks any true wallop. Its younger stars rely more on toothy grins than thespian prowess, and its villain is as cartoonish as Snidely Whiplash. I did tear up a couple of times, but “The Patriot” is more action adventure than character study. That may be good news for summer moviegoers, but it is not great movie making. Stunts and special effects will lose their impact as studios strive to outdo themselves each summer, but to live on as a classic, a film must have heart. Where the passion of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Braveheart” touched most viewers, “The Patriot’s” sentiment seems manufactured, untrue. The problem may rest in the lack of explanation for the characters’ actions. A little more exposition along with the abundant bloodletting would have added a depth to the production. Written and produced by the same team that brought us “Saving Private Ryan,” screenwriter Robert Rodat and producer Mark Gordon take it upon themselves to bring us the goriest depiction of the Revolutionary War to date. Admittedly, there is merit to this concept, for it isn’t just gratuitous violence, but a personification of the horrors soldiers face in battle. Seeing the inevitable battle between these two courageous armies sends a strong message about war. But where do we draw the line when it comes to violent images on the silver screen? Seeing children shoot adults as they aid their father in seeking vengeance? How about blood-drenched tables with wounded arms, legs, etc., being amputated? Or a cannon ball hurling straight at the camera and knocking off the head of a soldier? An in-your-face suicide and a church set on fire with the townsfolk locked inside? Or the savagery of the lead character as he continues to bludgeon a dead enemy until his own face is covered in the victim’s blood? A disturbing image can effectively make a definitive point about the atrocities of war, but I fear that the number of these gruesome visuals throughout the picture’s 167-minute length will take a negative toll upon the human psyche. Although the subject of violence in the movies has been debated to death, screen violence keeps getting more and more graphic, while deadly crimes are being committed by younger and younger offenders.