Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Travolta gets sadistic in 'The General's Daughter'

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): Hollywood hath spoken: the military is a bunch of shady guys with a twisted sense of camaraderie who are prepared to sacrifice anything, and anyone -- not necessarily themselves -- in the name of the corps.

Gone are the days when Hollywood offered us heroic films with patriotic, exemplary military figures such as MacArthur or Patton. Ever since Vietnam War movies came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, things have never been the same.

And since the late 1980s until now, the military in film has always been responsible for the most heinous crimes in various run-of-the-mill thrillers. It's not just in the way the crimes are committed, it's also in the way they are covered up. From The Lords of Discipline to The Presidio to A Few Good Men, we have always been shown people in uniform at their most evil.

The General's Daughter is the latest example. The film even opens with John Travolta, dressed in an army field uniform, engaged in what appears to be an illegal gun trade. We see him flashing that mile-wide cocky grin, speaking in a faux Southern accent, as he strong-arms a prospective buyer he suspects is a military investigator.

But we haven't seen anything yet. Travolta turns out to be the good guy. He is warrant officer Paul Brenner, an investigator with the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), who is actually on an undercover assignment. As soon as he finishes with that one, he walks off to his next case, the murder of Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), a young army officer at Fort McCallum military base. She appears to have been strangled, and her naked body is spread-eagled and bound on an open training field.

The corpse's condition is the least of Brenner's befuddlement: he recognizes the victim as a woman he met in a chance encounter a few days prior to the body's discovery. And he gets into more of a dilemma as he learns that she is the daughter of Gen. Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell), a celebrated war hero and public figure who is now considering running for the office of the vice president of the United States.

As if he hasn't got enough problems, Brenner's coworker in this inquiry is Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), a CID investigator and rape counselor with whom he once had a fling that ended unpleasantly. As their initial move, the two reluctant partners have a meeting with Gen. Campbell himself, who tells them to keep the case "an army matter" for 36 hours before they have to turn it over to the FBI.

Assisted by the Fort's provost marshall, Col. Bill Kent (Timothy Hutton), the two detectives proceed with an investigation that brings them face to face with a number of suspects and a series of startling discoveries. They learn that the late Elisabeth Campbell was not the clean and respectable officer she seemed, and that army officers who nervously breathe down their necks fear something more than just this scandalous death may be disclosed to the public.

Screenwriters Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman, adapting the novel by ex-army man Nelson DeMille, began the movie intriguingly enough with the mystery shrouding the private lives of the victim and the people who surround her. The dead woman herself comes alive and haunts the two investigators through videotapes of her sessions as a Psychological Operations instructor. As the movie progresses, we find out that the death may have a connection to an event kept secret in the past, and that Elisabeth's father is somewhat responsible for it.

But as the secrets are uncovered, we only see the most outlandish and unconvincing example of lewd, unethical, immoral conduct ever committed by people in uniform on screen. The film seems to start as a crusade against the improper treatment endured by women in the military. But eventually it can't help becoming as misogynistic as its villainous characters. It's hard to believe that Oscar-winning legendary scribe Goldman, who lambastes Oscar-nominated films in his annual article for Premiere magazine, could have been involved in this project.

It appears that director Simon West, who last gave us the crash-and-burn spectacle Con Air, didn't quite know how to handle the film either. He was constantly troubled by cinematic cliches and a long prologue that is completely irrelevant to the main story and offers us nothing but the chance to see the most sadistic thing Travolta does on-screen since what he did to Sissy Spacek in Carrie.

The only thing worth seeing in this movie is one particularly impressive performance. Not Travolta's, and not that of Cromwell, who looks too dunce-like to be an influential military figure. It's James Woods, who plays the constantly tormented Col. Robert Moore, the person who holds the key to most of the mystery's answers. Woods eats the scenes he is in with his skillful, charismatic delivery of lines. He has the energy to brighten the film, even for the few moments that he appears.