The General’s Daughter

(Simon West, USA, 1999)


Here is a film to make you wonder what political cinema is these days. The General’s Daughter goes right to the limit of what a mainstream, Hollywood film can say about (and against) the ruling institutions of Western society.

Yet it remains, somewhat queasily, a sunny, efficient, generic entertainment. Is this a way for the filmmakers to sugar the moral pill, or neutralise it?

The General’s Daughter is in the tradition of military films including A Few Good Men (1992) and Courage Under Fire (1996) – which is to say, it is about the hidden corruption that goes on in barracks and boardrooms, rather than field warfare.

Paul (John Travolta) is a tough hombre working for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. Shortly after flirting with the feisty Elisabeth (Leslie Stefanson), he learns that she has been killed in a grisly, sex-related murder. Paul is uncomfortably paired with his old flame, Sarah (Madeleine Stowe), to crack the case.

The team slowly uncover a hotbed of kinky secrets, involving Elisabeth, her mentor, Moore (James Woods), and just about every male in this military compound. Naturally, Elisabeth’s father, General Campbell (James Cromwell), wants to see the whole sordid mess dealt with and hushed up as soon as possible.

But – as Paul and Sarah quickly realise – the real issue is not so much sex (even in its perverse forms) as power, and its abuses. Where the film takes us, along this trail, is deeply unsettling – constituting almost a call to radical subversion.

Hélas, if only this were so! The General’s Daughter is full of evasive moves and slick layers (courtesy of director Simon West and writers Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman) that compromise its fundamentally disturbing message.

So, although the film sketches a general social analysis, it reduces the matter to shining heroes and culpable villains. It throws in a completely unnecessary sub-plot of running, semi-romantic banter between Paul and Sarah – perhaps to balance the perversity all around them.

It is full of audience-pleasing, triumphant, upbeat moments (in the mode of a previous Travolta vehicle, A Civil Action [1998]) – most of them rather uncalled for.

Ultimately, it is hard to get a grip on this film, or to predict what its exact effect might be on those who see it. If one accentuates the positive, it is a brave, challenging, thought-provoking intervention in mainstream public debates.

Otherwise, it’s just another Hollywood movie: enjoyable, smart and utterly ephemeral, as so many movies are.

© Adrian Martin November 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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