Lost in the Movies: Patriot Games

Patriot Games

I'm so used to Patriot Games, having seen it numerous times, that I can hardly "see" it anymore. To put it on the VCR is like putting on mood music, where you may not hear every note but still catch the general ambience. The comparison is appropriate because Patriot Games is a movie marked by signifiers, yet without real depth - a straight-up action movie which relies more on connotations than insight for its effect. Still, I like the retrospectively more classical style of the '92 film, and find its details, however superficial, evoke an enjoyable mood. Take the ubiquitous Irish pubs, thick accents, and ethereal Celtic music (which, along with the draconian anti-IRA perspective of the film, so incensed Variety film critic Joseph McBride that he wrote a scathing review - and was apparently fired from the publication as a result!). They are little more than associative signposts, but they work - if the film has any soul, it's borrowed, but I prefer borrowed soul to no soul and miss the days when Hollywood films - however superficially - bartered in such.

The very straightforwardness of Patriot Games - the way it embodies so many action films cliches without really transcending them - is part of its charm. Everything about it influenced countless home video-shot, ketchup-splattered action movies when my friends and I were kids - the villain so irredeemably nasty that you naturally cast yourself as him, the treacherous supposed good guy who shoots a fellow anonymous agent, the bad guys who don't bat an eye when killing their own. The attempts at gravity only add to the fun. There's the standard Harrison Ford beleaguered family man persona (a friend tells me that on "Family Guy," they once hypothesized a Ford movie in which he spent the whole film running up to random people on the street, grabbing them by the collar and desperately growling, "I want my family back!"). Also said actor's entirely rote facial expressions of sorrow and furrowed-brow intensity as he doggedly tackles terrorists and protects his family (the moment when he screams "Get down!" was looped over and over again, and combined with a high-pitched Mariah Carey note and a Bush 41 bon mot, in a hilarious and suprisingly catchy experimental music video I saw years ago - and haven't been able to find online since). Of course, even Ford's narrow collection of trademark tics seems versatile stacked up next to Sean Bean's admittedly enjoyable perpetual scowl (that face only lights up - briefly - when dispatching someone) and Anne Archer's eye-gleaming wry smile...which remains her only expression for the entirety of the film's two hours. In fact, it's the precocious Thora Birch who gives the most well-rounded performance in the movie.

In other words, the dramatic elements are only there as ingredients in the stew - and while audiences and creators are both in on that particular joke (though one at times suspects Tom Clancy might not be), neither one drops the poker face. Which makes the film both more palatable in this tired age of all-knowing postmodernism, and still residually effective - again with the point about borrowed soul. I think I like it more when a mainstream film "plays the game" than when it tries to have it both ways, as a commercial product and a comment on its own nature. There are exceptions to the rule, sure, but there's something a bit stale about the movie that's junk, knows it's junk, and expects more respect due to its knowledge. The quality I speak of isn't camp exactly - that I appreciate, in just the right doses (like with Jon Voight's performance in Anaconda). It's less good-natured than that and, coupled with the cramped, flatter aesthetic of today's Bourne-style actioners - as if they've given up with trying to tap into the viewers' imaginations, however un-subtly - makes a viewing of Patriot Games still refreshing (and the revival of this mentality, in a movie like last year's Taken all the more so). Sometimes I think that the "standard" for action films should be the early 90s aesthetic, one which can carry the film probably more than it deserves (the same is true, for most other types of films, of the 30s "look", but that's a subject for another post, another day). Nostalgia perhaps but, hey, indulge me...

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Adam Zanzie said...

My favorite part of Patriot Games is that rousing James Horner score. The moment when the movie opens with its Paramount logo and the music immediately starts playing- followed by the opening credits and the female vocalization in the background- that gets me every time. I suppose it's because I remember that music being used in the teaser trailer for Braveheart; pretty nostalgic of those days when I would watch the previews on my Forrest Gump VHS over and over again.

But the problem I have with Patriot Games is that superficial plotline. The film is basically about a terrorist seeking revenge on Jack Ryan's family, and that's it. Nothing much else. I like my Tom Clancy stories to be more complex, with far more important issues at stake- that's why I much prefer McTiernan's The Hunt for Red October or, even moreso, Noyce's Clear and Present Danger (which I didn't understand at all when I first saw it, but further viewings have been rewarding). Still, it's awesome to get to see Harrison Ford and Sean bean facing off.

btw, I didn't know that Joseph McBride took offense to the films anti-IRA politics! That worries me; McBride is one of my favorite film historians, as his 1995 biographical book on Steven Spielberg is still the richest Spielberg book around. At the same time, I know McBride has stirred controversy in other corners: his book on Frank Capra is pretty damning, from what I hear, and portrays Capra as some sort of sick mysogonist and corrupt conservative Republican supporter. Or something.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ah, the Forrest Gump VHS trailers. Somehow the experience feels a bit empty without the trifecta of Braveheart, Congo and Indian in the Cupboard kicking it off, even if the picture quality and aspect ratio have improved on DVD.

Yeah, something about the collusion of semi-mystical Celtic music with brutal violence is quite stirring, isn't it? Patriot Games is a rather pulpy example of this phenomenon, while Braveheart is a bit more refined in its achievement. But to me the apogee of this aesthetic is the ending of Last of the Mohicans - there the weird symmetry of druidic drumbeat and cathartic bloodshed achieves the level of art.

Here's the complete Joseph McBride passage, from "The Book of Movie Lists" which is great fun (not sure if it's still in print):

"THE JEDEDIAH LELAND MEMORIAL WARD (To Critics Who Lost Their Jobs Because of Their Reviews)

... [goes on to list several other examples, before concluding with...]

Joseph McBride Patriot Gamses (PHILIP NOYCE, 1992). My negative review of Patriot Gamses (see "My 13 Least Favorite Movies") prompted Paramount to pull its ads from Daily Variety. That was hardly an unprecedented reaction, but my editor-in-chief, former Paramount executive Peter Bart, reacted by writing a letter to Paramount Communications chairman and chief executive Martin S. Davis apologizing for my review and promising that I would not be allowed to review any more Paramount films. After Bart's letter was leaked to the New York Times, I defended my First Amendment right to my opinion. Daily Variety tried every possible means of retaliating, such as canceling my assignment to review A League of Their Own and assigning me only children's movies until my lawyer forced the paper to let me resume reviewing adult movies. Receiving unanimous public support from my colleagues in the media, I stuck it out for five months before obtaining a financial settlement from Daily Variety and resigning to concentrate on writing books."

Btw, I had said it was "Variety" but perhaps "Daily Variety" is a different publication. Not sure. Anyway, for his views on the film, here's the entry from the aforementioned "My 13 Least Favorite Movies":

"To quote my Daily Variety review, Patriot Games is an "ultraviolent, fascistic, blatantly anti-Irish" adaptation of Tom Clancy's novel, 'a right-wing cartoon of the current British-Irish political situation.' I stand by my review."

Troy Olson said...

I personally always found PATRIOT GAMES kind of boring (I much preferred CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER of the Jack Ryan movies), but your discussion of it does go to show (and I'm putting on my 32-year old old-man hat now) that they simply don't make movies like this anymore.

I mean, I guess, as you stated, the BOURNE movies are delineated from these films, in a way, but there is just a static, simple style to the old Clancy based films that screams "1990's". Perhaps if they made more movies like this I'd watch more things in the theaters for mindless fun, or perhaps I'd call my own bluff and realize that I only like these movie because I grew up watching them...huh.

Anyways, I've rambled enough there. That McBride story is pretty amazing -- but isn't Variety just a wankfest for the studios? I didn't know they even did "real" reviews.

MovieMan0283 said...

Of course, the funny thing is, as McBride's review indicates, the stability we see in the film wasn't seen at the time - his criticisms of its style make it sound like a proto-Bourne!

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Anon - you're a life saver!

Please everyone check out the video (it's the one I discussed in the piece, with Mariah Carey and Harrison Ford) - it's hilarious and brilliant!

Btw, I was wrong about Bush - he's not in that, but he's in this one, which is also worth seeing:


Unknown said...

I think it's actually quite a good film. McBride was guilty of letting his political views influence the review - and the filmgoer deserves better.
The argument he made was the classic 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' argument - citing the fact that fighters in the American War of Independence could be classed as 'terrorists' by the British, but were really patriots.
The important difference between the IRA and American 1776 revolutionaries, was that the American patriots didn't put bombs in crowded pubs or commit heinous acts of sectarian or indiscriminate murder.
The IRA did.

Joel Bocko said...

JF, thanks for the late comment - and sorry I didn't catch it till now (I'm going to go back through my comment archives and see if I missed any others - I don't always get notifications...). Admittedly part of my take on the film as a guilty pleasure is due to always watching it on my cropped, lower-quality VHS tape, which better cultivates nostalgia but probably doesn't do the visuals justice.

I'm going to revisit McBride's review but I agree both that politics and aesthetics, while both worthy of discussion and sometimes interrelated, deserve to be considered independently. Also not a fan of excusing the targeting of civilians (which of course state militaries as well as terrorist guerrillas do) & excusing it as means to an end. That said, it's interesting that for all McBride's criticisms the film actually kind of has its cake and eats it too - making the villains not the IRA proper, but a more militant splinter group of such (what with the whole Richard Harris character & his condemnations, the IRA is depicted unsympathetically but still sort of let off the hook.) I wonder how that's depicted in the book - if it was a change made to play it safe in the film.

Btw, if you are interested in Irish history & films, you might enjoy my Michael Collins piece as well (can't link it now but it's listed in the directory). Thanks for stopping by.

Joel Bocko said...

Ah, here's the Collins piece: http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2010/09/michael-collins-taking-liberties-with.html. On this errk's most popular posts too, oddly enough. Go figure...

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