Fourth of July weekend seemed like the perfect time to open a Revolutionary War picture, but thrill-seeking audiences bypassed the 160-minute historical drama The Patriot. Ironically, reviewers said the film is a sickly history lesson and works only on the level of popcorn entertainment. Moviegoers, though, were too busy buying tickets for The Perfect Storm (which nearly doubled The Patriot's take) to care.
The Perfect Storm, an adaptation of the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, tells the true story of a group of fishermen who get caught in the worst storm in recorded history. The movie's theme of human frailty had distributors worried that audiences would pass, but instead people flocked to see the you-are-there special effects advertised on posters—shelling out $41.7 million for the privilege. Christian critics agreed that the effects were the film's strong point. "This summer's biggest 'oh my God' movie, The Perfect Storm is the most intense film I can remember," raves the Dove Foundation. "The computer-generated action sequences are so realistic, you may experience a little seasickness. … But it is little more than a summer action flick. Look for no significant message or parable." Likewise, the U.S. Catholic Conference says it "emphasiz[es] special-effects thrills over compelling characterizations," Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com elaborates, saying she "wanted to see more of [George] Clooney's character and get an idea of what made this captain so driven, lonely and selfish, but unfortunately his character isn't really explored." However, Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott found the characterizations sufficient: "[the film] gives us just enough information about their lives to make us care deeply about whether they survive that journey." And Movieguidedoes dig significant messages from it, writing that "enemies are brought together, crew members risk their lives for one another, and prayer is mentioned." Two other reviewers squared off over whom in the film should be admired. Jeffrey Overstreet of GreenLake Reflections was distressed that the sailors should be held out as heroes. "Even though the music salutes them as noble, there's no way the viewer can miss the selfishness and rashness of these fishermen. … There's nothing honorable about abandoning family and friends just to prove you can catch some fish." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser, however, felt those attempting to rescue the boat were supposed to be the heroes. "It's quite a statement about the value of a single human life when the Coast Guard is willing to put trained professionals and millions of dollars worth of equipment in jeopardy to save a terrified sailor on his way to Bermuda. There's also a selfless sense of duty conveyed, both in statements by Coast Guard officials and by their actions." Several critics, including Preview's Paul Bicking, warned of the film's salty material, which includes graphic injuries, sexual content, the crews who "swear like the sailors they are."
Opinion on The Patriot was likewise all over the spectrum, with debates springing up over its horrific violence, its patriotic zeal, its historical accuracy, its parenting advice, and its religious implications. The film tells the fictional story of Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a vengeful father who forms a guerrilla army and helps turn the tide of the war against the Redcoats. His graphic butcherings rankled the Dove Foundation, which asked, "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 … a cannon ball hurling straight at the camera and knocking off the head of a soldier? Or the savagery of the lead character as he continues to bludgeon a dead enemy?" Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure, however, didn’t mind watching the realistic warfare. "There are people objecting to scenes that show young boys holding guns and killing people," she notes. "Oh pllleeeaaasse people! Are we so '21st century politically correct' that we forget what the realities of the Revolutionary War were really like?" Some found that these visceral images inspired national pride, like Paul Bicking of Preview. "This stirring, emotional story generates renewed patriotism as viewers see the struggles and sacrifices of men and their families to establish our freedoms." But Peter T. Chattaway, a Canadian writing for BC Christian News (the BC is for British Columbia), complains that the film's rah-rah nationalism is mere pandering, achieved by unfairly vilifying the British. "Watching The Patriot, I was reminded of an essay in which G.K. Chesterton argued that so-called moral films—films which oversimplify history and stir partisan sentiments while shutting down people's minds—were a greater peril to society than their lowbrow, allegedly immoral counterparts." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com argues that the film is historically accurate in spirit. While the "unbelievably evil Colonel Tavington, [who] so casually butchered colonial men, women, and children," is fictional, he is not "a misrepresentation of the historical truth. … The sad facts are that such atrocities did take place." Perhaps, but as J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth says, the same courtesy was not extended to the American characters. "It's clear that Benjamin Martin is based largely on Francis Marion, the famous 'Swamp Fox,' but Marion's less admirable qualities, particularly the brutal treatment of his slaves, have been removed entirely. In fact, Gibson's character is so utopian he'd probably boycott present-day South Carolina if he were alive." Martin also takes on a 21st-century sensibility in his role as a sensitive single father, something praised by staff writer Ken James of Christian Spotlight. "It's his role as a father that convinces him to oppose war with England [at the film's start]. He knows the price that will be paid on their family; the fighting that will be waged on their land." Yet this scene, where Martin backs down from his principles in order to care for his kids, struck Focus on the Family's Tom Neven as decidedly bad parenting. "Benjamin utters a line that, though intended to show what a high priority his children are, clearly doesn't jibe with a Christian view of parenting: 'I'm a parent. I haven't the luxury of principles.'" Reviewers also differed on the importance of Christian faith in the movie, which includes prayer, church gatherings, numerous crosses, and a respectable pastor. Movieguide gave enthusiastic praise that "prayer runs throughout the film, and the Cross of Jesus Christ is lifted up. The Patriot is thus a terrific, engrossing movie." Likewise, Childcare Action notes that "our Christian heritage is not ignored in this movie." But Chattaway points out that "the British, in contrast, are utterly secular, their villainy confirmed when one of them torches a church." The truth that Christianity existed on both sides of the battlefield is never considered.
Chicken Run is still holding strong at the box office, as excellent word-of-mouth continues to spread. Here's a few more words of praise: "This is a brilliant comedy that entertains adults as much as the kids," says Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com. "I loved every frame of this hilarious movie." Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott also marveled at each frame—all 7,344,000 of them—and "the sheer effort that goes into this kind of stop-action animation … while keeping in mind the overall pacing of the film, the timing of the jokes, and the definition of the animated characters." Childcare Action agrees that "this feature is a tribute to the patience and ingenuity of the filmmakers." And speaking of the filmmakers, Peter T. Chattaway of BC Christian News reports that writer/director Nick Park is a Christian; Chattaway heard Park "introduce a screening of The Wrong Trousers at Greenbelt, the British Christian music festival, in 1994." (Chicken Run has already been mined for Christian parallels; an earlier review by Hollywood Jesus' Annette Wierstra calls the lead chicken, Ginger, "a hen of great faith. … No matter what happens, she believes that there is freedom and a paradise, even though she's never seen it.") The harshest criticism this story has been given is a brief warning from Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser: "Audiences in the United States may bristle at [the American rooster] Rocky being portrayed as an unreliable mercenary who is more interested in tickling ears with what others want to hear than in communicating the truth." (Considering how the Brits are portrayed in The Patriot, I'd say we're lucky to get off with "unreliable.")
Falling victim to the success of Chicken Run is another kid-targeted pic, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which opened at a paltry $6.6 million. The film puts a Who Framed Roger Rabbit twist on the '60s Jay Ward cartoon, with villains Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader taking flesh-and-blood personas (Jason Alexander, Rene Russo, and Robert De Niro), while moose and squirrel remain two-dimensional. Despite the rather innocent humor of the film, Christian reviewers found little to be excited about. Although it "takes us back to a time when writers found humor in things other than flatulence," the Dove Foundation writes, the movie hardly sparkles. "I really wanted to like this film, but I found too many of the gags missing their mark and the story beginning to peter out." Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure also "barely even laughed through the entire movie," and Movieguide agrees that it lacks "the freshness and wit of the television series." Accordingly, it plays better with those too young to remember the show, says Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com; it's something "children should enjoy, adults can tolerate, and fans of the original series can be disappointed in." But Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser, a fan himself, says the opposite. "More clever than expected, this movie maintains a brisk pace and packs in more gags than most people will pick up on the first pass. Of course, I grew up watching [the show] and thus appreciated much of the self-aware humor. Preteens may not get it." Another area of disagreement was the Aesop-like moral of the story. Preview's Paul Bicking was glad to see that "Rocky and Bullwinkle make the transition after 35 years of retirement with their morals intact;" the duo teaches one character that "what you believe in when you're young can still be true when you grow up." Elliott, however, calls it "a nice sentiment but a bit misleading, as it doesn't explain what truth is." More harsh is mainstream reviewer Shawn Levy of The Oregonian, who terms it "saccharine moralizing."
Two films about the American rave scene have hit the big screen, one a documentary, one fictional. Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure says the documentary, Better Living Through Circuitry, is worth seeing for any parent. "It would enlighten them on why their teenager may be interested in the rave phenomenon. … It not only reveals how readily available the drugs are at these events to young and impressionable teens, but also the side effects, dangers and risks involved." The film doesn't romanticize the parties; it "mostly showed how pathetic and lost so many of the young people are who attend them." The fictional Groove also displays both the attraction and danger of raves, but Movieguide says it leans too far toward seduction. "There is some truth in its depiction of consequences that can come from participating in this type of scene. … Groove shows how one rave damages the relationship of one heterosexual couple. [But its] portrayal of the rave scene is irresponsible, implying that the only way to have fun is by using drugs."
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: Me, Myself & Irene, Shaft, Big Momma's House, Gone in 60 Seconds, Mission: Impossible 2, and Gladiator
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