"The Patriot" is the kind of film that keeps reminding you how good it could have been if only.... If only Mel Gibson hadn't insisted on those closeups of his sky-blue eyes, like some latter-day version of a Marlene Dietrich movie. If only director Roland Emmerich hadn't been so heavy-handed with every moment of pain or triumph, making sure we got it. If only the film hadn't been allowed to bloat up to two hours and forty minutes, on the theory that more is better. If only John Williams' score weren't so poundingly overblown, banal and repetitious.
Having said that, we can find some good things in the film. Robert Rodat's script ("Saving Private Ryan") is a well-crafted piece about Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a man who was a butcher in a battle in the French and Indian War, who renounced violence in an attempt to hide from his past, fathered seven children with his now-dead wife, and confronts the new Revolutionary War with dismay when his son enlists in the Continental Army. Then, victimized by a British officer who embodies every vile character trait he once saw in himself (Jason Isaacs in a classic rendering of movie villainy) he joins the fight himself.
There's plenty in that script for what should have been a small film about small skirmishes and guerrilla warfare -- the kind that did in reality wear down the British over the course of seven years. In fact the film gives Benjamin's group a hideout in the swamp and a total of fewer than thirty men. But by the time Emmerich, Gibson and Columbia Pictures have finished blowing it up, a la "Braveheart," the film has Benjamin defeating Cornwallis in pitched battle and turning the tide of the Revolution. Please.
But there's also a clear-eyed view of death in that time. Children die, having done nothing wrong except to find themselves standing in the wrong place. They also kill, and we see that strange mixture of excitement, fear, and guilt flash across their faces.
In the film's best sequence, the British have captured half of Benjamin's little band, while he has captured Cornwallis's pair of Great Danes. He comes to Cornwallis under a white flag, with the two dogs, to propose a prisoner exchange. He points out eighteen British officers, standing in the distance, surrounded by his men. He will exchange them for the eighteen now held by the British. When Cornwallis agrees, the men ride out to safety and the eighteen British officers are found to be dummies in uniform.
Gibson is one of the few actors who can carry a film all by himself. He is always compelling to watch, with a mobile face and the sly wit that made the "Lethal Weapon" films so much more enjoyable than they had any right to be. His trademark shtick, that look of momentary stupidity when confronted with, in this case, his son's love for a young girl, is always a pleasure to see, and we've come to look forward to it.
Nevertheless, the film exemplifies the old adage that bloat kills. Here it muffles the power of a good story, slows down the action, and weakens the emotional impact we should have felt. When will they learn?