The General's Daughter

D: Simon West
S: John Travolta, Madeline Stowe

A young female officer is found dead on an Army base in Georgia. Undercover Army Investigator John Travolta is brought in to solve the case before the FBI gets involved and the details become public. The reason for the secrecy is that the victim is the daughter of high-profile retiring General James Cromwell, but as Travolta discovers, there are extenuating circumstances which make it doubly important that no one ever knows the truth. He is assisted in his efforts by former lover and rape investigator Madeline Stowe and they pit themselves against a variety of familiar faces on the base including James Woods, Timothy Hutton and Clarence Williams III.

Tough, well paced and certainly gripping while it's on, there's something absurd about the film of Nelson DeMille's novel when you think about it afterwards. Director Simon West (Con-Air) does an excellent job of ensuring that the audience has no time to think about it as it runs, but afterwards on begins to wonder if all the speechifying on the subject of rape and women in the military with which the film concludes is not a lot of hypocritical posturing. Without wanting to spoil the plot, it is difficult to fully accept the explanation given for its victim's errant behaviour and especially her novel solution to her unique psychological problems. Meanwhile Travolta has fun with an ambiguous characterisation (albeit a good guy this time following his work with John Woo on Broken Arrow and Face/Off). His eventual accession to the force of the greater moral good seems a tad convenient, and the peculiar credit sequence bizarrely makes him out to be a traditional cowboy hero riding off into the sunset. There's something incongruous and faintly ridiculous about how it all works itself out in narrative and characterisation, and the final on-screen titles explaining 'what happened next' seem all too comforting and conventional.

On the plus side, West has certainly found a more serious timbre here than in Con-Air. The film does succeed in raising many issues, though it eventually abandons them as noted above. It is a strong diatribe on ethics, and West enjoys playing in the realm of necessity and duty which the army base setting establishes. There are, as one character indicates, infinite shades of moral greyness in human behaviour, and for most of the running time, West (via screenplay contributions from adaptors including William Goldman) revels in shifting perception so that no one is untouched by ethical uncertainty. James Woods turns in a lovely supporting performance as an enigmatic Colonel, though the revelations about his personal life are a shade predictable to say the least. Timothy Hutton is rather less ambiguous, but James Cromwell gets to keep the audience guessing as to his level of villainy having played the heavy in L.A. Confidential and the nice guy in Babe: Pig in the City and Star Trek: First Contact. It does get preachy in the end though, and its resolution of these moral dilemmas the its clearing the moral high ground on behalf of certain characters is all too much like what we've seen before and don't care to see again.

It's a difficult film to recommend. On one hand it's an action thriller with plenty of brutal violence and murder mystery intrigue to entertain the punters. On the other hand it's relatively unashamed of its tendency to move fast to avoid detection. It requires concentration and a degree of mental ellipsis to keep up with it, and then audiences are rewarded with a problematic conclusion. There are worthwhile moments here and elements which succeed in raising the level of discourse slightly above routine, yet, as noted, there comes that moment not long after you have left your seat when you begin to think back on it and realise that for all its apparently serious intent, it comes as close to exploitation of the subject matter as lesser genre efforts. Whether this is a wasted opportunity or an inevitable result of Hollywood movie making is open to interpretation. How you respond to the mix of styles and tones is another matter entirely and will affect just how much value you get from the viewing. It's certainly not the best film on rape or on military ethics that you're likely to see, though it is in limited company as a consideration of both at the same time (it's been along time since Casualties of War), which may be reason enough to take a look. As a plup movie, it's not bad. As anything else, it's not parituclarly noteworthy apart from the fact that it was made without U.S. Army co-operation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.