Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Defending The Patriot

I didn't get to last week's League of Extraordinary Bloggers assignment about patriotic pop culture ("What movie, TV show, comic book, etc. makes you want to stand up and salute Old Glory? "), but if I had, I would've written about The Patriot. Today seems like a good day to catch up.

It's not cool to like The Patriot, especially these days after the Fall of Mel Gibson, but even back in the day it had a bad reputation as the American Braveheart. That's not fair.

I understand re-assessing Mel Gibson movies in light of his off-screen activities; I'm not going to say that people shouldn't do that. My problem is with faulting The Patriot for having a superficially similar theme to Braveheart. That's a shallow reason not to like a movie, especially when it has so much going for it.

I'm not going to defend Gibson's personal actions or statements, but there's no denying that the man can act and he brings it in The Patriot. I never related to Braveheart (I'm more of a Rob Roy man), but The Patriot goes into some themes that resonate with me in a powerful way. It's not just about revolution and fighting for what you believe in, it's about protecting your family and the sacrifices you have to make to do that.

Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin is deeply conflicted. He hates how England is treating the Colonies, but isn't willing to put his family in danger to support a revolt. As someone who never had to sacrifice anything for my privileges as a US citizen, I can relate to that. I can't think of anything that would make me sacrifice my family's security. What's amazing about Martin's experience is how it flips that protectiveness around and turns it into a reason to stay away from his family and join the revolution. Gibson struggles with his decisions in a powerful, relateable way, so by the time he's fully invested in the war, so am I. The Patriot helps me relate to grand themes like oppression and freedom by connecting them to something as simple and primal as love of family. It's a pretty obvious trick - and I can see why some are resistant to being manipulated that way - but even though I'm not easily roused by patriotic themes,it works on me.

The rest of the cast is as good as Gibson. Playing Martin's oldest son was the breakout role for Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You was the only thing anyone had seen him in up to then) and Jason Isaacs grabbed more attention than ever by being the most deliciously evil villain since Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The kids are all good (Skye McCole Bartusiak has an especially memorable moment as Martin's youngest daughter) and Joely Richardson is an inspiring heroine who holds the family together while Martin protects them in the war. Think I'm going to go watch it again right now.


Kelly Sedinger said...

I enjoyed this movie well enough...until the church-torching scene, which is when it just became too grim and depressing for me. There's a fine line to walk with movie villains, beyond which it just can't be satisfying in any way when they're eventually defeated. That scene was like the awful scene in Air Force One when Gary Oldman's terrorist holds the gun to that poor woman's head (after he and his goons have already killed some people, well establishing their Evil Cred) and counts to ten before killing her. It's interesting that you mention Hans Gruber, because he's such an effective villain because you kind of like him whilst rooting against him, and you cheer when he finally gets it. In his movie, Hans kills exactly TWO people, and both killings are logical extensions of their scenes and the story, and not just a gratuitous bit of extra-heinous stuff (stolen, incidentally, from a later point in history -- the Nazis did this same thing to a village in France) thrown in just to make sure we get how bad this guy is. He's already killed Mel's son; what more do we need?

Michael May said...

After watching The Patriot again on Wednesday, I agree with you about the difference between Gruber and Col. Tavington. Gruber is fun to watch; Tavington not so much. I shouldn't have used "deliciously" to describe him.

What I was remembering was how much I truly hated the character in exactly the way I was supposed to. It starts with his calling Thomas a "stupid boy" right after he kills him and just keeps going from there. His smug arrogance worms its way into me and makes me hate him in a way I don't usually care about fictional villains. There are only two or three bad guys in fiction that affect me that much. (That might make a cool post, actually.)

The church-burning scene is horrible, but it works for me because of the effect it has on Gabriel and the preacher and - to a limited extent - on Adam Baldwin's character. For me, that keeps it from being gratuitous, but I know that's subjective and I don't blame you for deciding it's too much.

I have to think more about Gary Oldman's character in Air Force One, because while you're right about how despicable he is, he wouldn't make my list of Most Effective Villains. I wonder why that is. Maybe it's that his motives are less developed. We're meant to accept that he's a patriot for a particular regime of his country, but get no sense about why he's that way. With Tavington, I know exactly why he does what he does. It's a combination of loyalty to his own country, desperation to improve his circumstances, and an overwhelming lack of empathy. I can understand and (to a small extent) even relate to those motivations at the same time that I loathe what he does with them. That's what makes him so powerful to me.

Completely off this topic, but I also learned from my re-watch that Tom Wilkinson plays General Cornwallis. I don't think I knew who Wilkinson was the last time I watched the movie.


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