Frustrating and beautiful, intense and slippery, dark and superficial, director Simon West’s The General’s Daughter is a constant source of contradiction. Rising above our tired expectations of the genre, the film succeeds where most military flicks tend to fail – in intensity and atmosphere – only to be "killed," ironically, by the lack of heroism of its script.
An emotional yet lucid attempt at describing – yet again – the impenetrable world of the Army, with its devastating choices and acts of courage which often have sinister consequences, The General’s Daughter is not very interesting as a mystery: Pick the lamest of suspects and you have your killer. Much more compelling is that part of the movie which translates into a veritable collection of "case studies," disturbing patterns of pathological behavior, something that the general’s daughter, Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), calls "fucking with people’s minds."
Based on Nelson DeMille’s novel, the film has all the attributes of a sultry Southern gothic: the right location, the perfect "through a glass darkly" look, even a complicated, intelligent character like that of Col. Robert Moore (played flawlessly by James Woods). But somewhere along the way, afraid – as always – of the ominously dark film, the scriptwriters decided to "lighten things up" and turn CID investigator Paul Brenner (John Travolta) into the usual macho Hollywood man who sleeps with a gun under his pillow and a knife between his teeth. The fluffy, inconsequential exchanges between Brenner and his devoted partner, Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), lessen the intensity with which the film strives to ask intelligent and unpleasant questions about women in the military.
"We shot a very good script," says Travolta, who delivers all his lines through clenched teeth, thus turning his hard-boiled investigator into a pastiche of himself. "[The script] makes a lot of turns that are unexpected. If it comes close to what we committed to as artists, audiences should find an entertaining, thrilling, funny, romantic and mysterious picture."
And audiences do, not without feeling that all that romantic, funny glitter covers something that could have been a truly spectacular and intensely polemical film.
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