The title character in The General’s Daughter is dead. In fact, she’s quite spectacularly dead, raped and strangled, laid out naked and bloody with her hands and feet tied to tent stakes on a bit of lawn in a military training compound outside Savannah, Georgia. The image gets your attention. It’s grotesque and horrifying. And it’s recalled several times in the film, verbally and visually, to impress on you the threat that it supposedly poses for military, moral, sexual, and aesthetic orders.
Ironically, while the movie is portrayed as an aberration, the work of deviant individuals, it’s also the result of their obsessions with those same orders. Simon (Con Air) West’s new film doesn’t explore this connection, however: instead, it adheres to summertime thriller conventions, marking all characters and situations with exclamation points: The murder is brutal! The victim has dark secrets! The bad guys are bad! No surprises here, just melodramatic deliveries.
In this context, it’s especially telling that the movie is named for this character, and in such a peculiarly nameless way. Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) doesn’t have much of an identity here except as a daughter and a corpse. She’s introduced early on as a live person, sexy and self-assured in her supercrisp uniform, even as she changes a tire for stranded warrant officer (and undercover investigator) Paul Brenner (John Travolta). This seeming chance meeting has one function, to show that she’s the designated dead meat and he’s the designated redeemer. Paul attempts to flirt with her that night on the road and the next day in her office (he brings her a basket of “bath products”). But his charms fall flat, which can only mean that she won’t survive much longer in this John Travolta vehicle.
The star draws from his usual bag of tricks: he sighs, smiles that crinkly smile and seduces, he looks perplexed, he looks determined and sincere. Paul’s a mostly upright, sometimes roguish American heroic type, honorable but determined, used to getting his way. He’s also got an unusual kind of power as a top dog in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, in that he can arrest any military person anytime. This makes the brass feel defensive. At the time of the murder, Paul happens to be on the base tracking down illegal gun buyers (which is how he runs into the victim to be). In this capacity, he deploys a cheesy Southern drawl and endures standard action-picture explosions and underwater fisticuffs, ostensibly establishing his rough-and-toughness, but really seeming irrelevant to everything else.
This everything else involves the daughter’s terrible past (convenient videos show her s-m activities with every man on the base) and a chain of command looking to keep it quiet. Asked to take the case by his buddy, the base’s watchdog Colonel Kent (Timothy Hutton), Paul soon learns there are strings attached and a time frame (the FBI moves in if he doesn’t solve it in 36 hours). Kent’s commander and Elisabeth’s father is a mucky-muck general called Fightin’ Joe (James Cromwell, apparently going in for paternal slimeball typecasting after LA Confidential). Used to yes men including his devoted and long-serving assistant, Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III, strangely moving, as ever) the general assumes that Paul will obediently collude in the necessary cover-up, to “protect” the military.
The script, based on a best-selling novel by Nelson DeMille, written by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman, unimaginatively pairs Paul with his fellow CID officer and ex-wife, Sarah (Madeleine Stowe). Their mutual flirting and sniping might pass for a relationship on another planet, but there’s little doubt that Sarah’s central functions are to confirm for viewers Paul’s sexual appeal and to play professional tagalong, carrying her notebook and watching Paul play mind games with suspects and witnesses. One interview she misses concerns the outclassed Paul trying to match wits with Elisabeth’s crafty, charismatic mentor, Colonel Moore (James Woods). The fact that Paul misses a crucial, fairly obvious “secret” about Moore (he’s gay, but no one asks or “tells,” outright) indicates the investigator’s inability to read people. Or maybe he just needs to get out more.
Sarah and Paul do share the film’s most intriguing and disturbing scene. She’s been attacked one foggy evening by an Army thug, pathetically trying to scare her off the case, but more directly (in terms of plot) setting up Paul’s capacity for morally driven vengeance (he’ll break rules to get the job done: gggrrrrrrr). The next morning, Sarah comes along for Paul’s takedown of her none-too-bright assailant (he wore his big old class ring during the attack, and it’s featured in several close-ups so you and Sarah don’t miss it). As she sees Paul toss the guy into furniture and walls, her eyes grow wide and there’s a slight smile on her lips. She’s repulsed but also obviously titillated, enjoying the ruthless come-uppance on her behalf.
The brief scene isn’t so much cathartic as it is suggestive. It would seem that nice girl Sarah has a creepy voyeuristic streak and that Paul definitely has a penchant for big bully violence. Linking the investigators and the objects of their investigation, via the pleasures they take in violence and the sexual excuses they use, the scene also links the protagonists with their audience, by asking you to root for avenger Paul and sympathize with damsel Sarah.
For all its thrilling play with blame and sex and violence, the movie holds to this idea of order for its own sake. Paul might seem like a contemporary hero, in that he’s got his own issues with betrayal and desire, not to mention dealing with “alternative” sexualities. But old-fashioned beliefs and structures prevail, especially those based in military ethics and gendered codes of conduct. The movie is about what it means to be a man. It seems to indict the bad guys for obsessing over career advancement, controlling all outcomes (and people), and avoiding all things feminine, like being raped or admitting being raped. But it doesn’t find anything different in Paul. Upset by the truth he seeks so arduously, he responds like a standard movie man.