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Friday, Sept. 15, 2000

'U-571,' 'THE PATRIOT'

The politics of entertainment

Historical revisionism is the flavor of the month, as "U-571" and "The Patriot" tackle World War II and the Revolutionary War from a decidedly -- and controversially -- American perspective. Both films have raised hackles in the U.K., with good reason, and that old bugaboo, cultural imperialism. This notion is often scoffed at by free traders, who see nothing but market forces at work in Hollywood's movies, and no agenda other than entertainment. After viewing these two films, however, that's a hard argument to swallow.

Take "U-571," which is basically just another submarine drama in the tradition of "Das Boot" or "Crimson Tide." Set in the early days of World War II, the film -- based on actual events -- follows a U.S. Navy attempt to board and capture a crippled German U-boat. Their goal: to capture intact a German "Enigma" code machine, which will allow the Allies to decipher all Nazi communications. Better yet, if the Germans think their submarine has sunk, they will not know that the machine has fallen into Allied hands.

Matthew McConaughey plays an inexperienced young naval officer, Lt. Andrew Tyler, forced to assume command under extreme conditions; his ensuing crisis closely mirrors the conflicts that tore at Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan." After a series of mishaps, Tyler and a few of his men -- including Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel) and Lt. Emmet (Jon Bon Jovi) -- find themselves desperately trying to pilot the crippled sub back to Allied waters under close pursuit by the German navy.

The film is deliciously tense and has enough (plausible) plot twists to maintain the pace. Older filmgoers, though, may feel a bit of deja vu, as the claustrophobic fear created by slowly approaching depth charges is more than a little reminiscent of "Das Boot." But since video just can't possibly do justice to the big-screen terrors of rumbling sub-bass explosions with water bursting through the bolt-plated seams, it's likely there'll be a new audience for this sort of film each generation.

"U-571" is one of those true-life heroic tales that make you proud to be an American. . . . Problem is, in real life, it was the Brits who seized the Enigma machine. Now why this movie would have been any less exciting, interesting or entertaining with a British cast, I can't imagine. Certainly a Robert Carlyle or a Ewan McGregor could pull as many viewers as McConaughey and Bon Jovi. The only possible explanation is that the American public -- or the demographers dictating what they get -- cannot accept a mainstream flick with "foreign" heroes. Is the paucity of imagination and empathy really so small? "U-571" suggests the answer is "yes."

Which brings us to "The Patriot," the latest by director Roland Emmerich, who presumably didn't get to do enough flag-waving already in "Independence Day." This is basically a Mel Gibson revision of "Braveheart" in an American context. Set in South Carolina in 1776, the film follows plantation owner Benjamin Martin (Gibson), a veteran of the French-Indian War who at first resists spilling further blood. He's reluctantly drawn into the conflict when his headstrong son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) enlists in Washington's army, and is subsequently captured by the British, led by the ruthless Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs).

Emmerich's film delivers on the level of sheer spectacle, with strapping, rosy-cheeked youths working on sprawling colonial plantations of waving wheat, and fierce rows of gleaming steel under a tattered stars and stripes on the battlefield. But so did the propaganda films of the Soviet Union. Here, the historical nuances and personal complexities of a rich spectacle such as "Lawrence of Arabia" are trashed in favor of action-adventure set-pieces and glib mistruths.

The worst of the former comes when Gibson waits till the last moment to dodge a fatal swordstroke coming unseen from behind. (Perhaps he felt the air molecules vibrating.) The worst of the latter is the convenient notion that all the black workers on Martin's plantation were freed men, not slaves, and that race relations were so rosy that blacks and whites would frolic together on beaches to steel-drum music. The caketaker is when Gabriel befriends a black slave fighting with the colonial army, and claims: "If we win this war, a lot of things will change." Of course, they didn't, not for another century and a war in which the South Carolinians were on the pro-slavery side. Is it truly drama, or ideology, which demands such falsifications?

The British gripe about "The Patriot" is how the redcoats are portrayed as savages butchering the local inhabitants, but perhaps they do protest too much: Such massacres are a part of the historical record. Although when the commander of His Majesty's Dragoons becomes a blood-lusting saber-wielding beast to rival the Headless Horseman in "Sleepy Hollow" (even coming back from the dead), perhaps they have a point.

A more interesting reading is to compare "The Patriot" to another recent Hollywood film, the embassy-under-fire thriller "Rules of Engagement." "The Patriot" indicts the inhumanity of the British soldiers for killing civilians indiscriminately, simply for the crime of supporting their revolutionary neighbors. Yet the flip side of this comes in "Rules of Engagement," in which U.S. soldiers justify gunning down Yemeni women and children as a necessary evil, for they are the accomplices of rebels.

When Col. Tavington sneers "the honor is found in the end, not the means" -- as he torches a church full of civilians -- he's clearly the villain. Yet when Samuel Jackson's marine sergeant defends his orders to open fire on a crowd of civilians, it's the stand-up-and-cheer moment in "Rules of Engagement." As they say, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and in the eyes of the empire, some revolutionaries are more equal than others.

Wags in the U.S. are quick to rail against the United Nations and the dangers of a supposed monolithic world government, but they see nothing wrong with monolithic global control of cinema in the hands of the U.S. True, cinema has no legal power over us, but it is the most potent art form, period, in shaping (and reflecting) people's dreams, fantasies, perspectives, and -- yes -- prejudices.

While the U.S., bastion of globalization, demands that Hollywood films be accessible to a global audience (as enforced by GATT), Hollywood common sense is that American audiences need distinctly American, overtly nationalistic content. The hypocrisy is staggering. If Hollywood aspires to be the world's cinema, then let's start seeing the world's perspective as well.

"U-571" is playing at Shibutoh Cine Tower and other theaters. "The Patriot" opens Sept. 23 at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan and other theaters.

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