Watching the first half of The Patriot, viewers may find themselves reflecting upon the rapidness with which the narrative breakthroughs of Saving Private Ryan — a brutal insistence on ”realistic” carnage; a sense that any character can be killed off at any time — have been swallowed by the mainstream and digested into pap. For, make no mistake, director Roland Emmerich’s gloss on the American Revolution is big-budget hackwork, from its Snidely Whiplash villain (Jason Isaacs) to John Williams’ emotionally fraudulent score. Far from depicting the historical stakes, Emmerich seems content to blow things up real good and, as Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) runs around the woods attacking the British, to graft a jingoistic remake of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves onto Old Glory.
And yet, there’s a smaller movie here struggling to get out, and it’s an honest one. Martin has enlisted along with his headstrong eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), and The Patriot‘s second hour, in which father and son come to know each other as men through word and deed, carries far more weight than any way-cool shot of a cannonball carrying off a soldier’s head. As for the rest — well, as Samuel Johnson might have put it, patriotism is the last refuge of the guy who made Godzilla. C+