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"The General's Daughter" leaves nothing to the imagination, "The Winslow Bay" leaves everything.

By Susan Ellis

JUNE 28, 1999:  It must have been an oversight on the studio's part to release The General's Daughter on Father's Day weekend, given that it's an indictment of bad daddying. To go on further would give away too much, and besides, bad timing is the least of this film's problems.

The General's Daughter stars John Travolta as Paul Brenner, an investigator for the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Brenner is on a South Carolina base about to put an end to an arms-dealing ring. Right as he's making a bloody mess of the bad guy, a woman soldier is found dead, nude, and staked to the ground in the middle of the base's training grounds. This is no ordinary soldier -- she is Captain Elisabeth Campbell, the daughter of the much-respected General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), whose name is being batted about as a possible vice presidential candidate.

General Campbell, a hero to Brenner, tells him to make haste of finding the killer before the Feds become involved and Army careers are ruined. Brenner obliges and is helped in the investigation by his ex-lover Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe) and Colonel William Kent (Timothy Hutton).

The case is soon mired by a large number of possible suspects as Brenner begins to unearth Elisabeth's troubling past. Something happened while Elisabeth was a cadet at West Point that drove her to some unsettling lifestyle choices which, in turn, touch the lives of many officers on the South Carolina base and show up in living color courtesy of some hidden videotapes. Any one of the fellows on the tapes could be the killer, or it could be her boss Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods), a nervous wreck of a man who reeks of guilt. Most troubling of all, the killer could be someone much higher in rank and much more powerful.

The General's Daughter is not half-bad, meaning it's not half-good either. Director Simon West (Con Air), working from Nelson DeMille's novel, moves the plot along sharply enough, building up the tension nice and slow, and there are bright spots. It's not every movie that uses an aluminum fishing boat as a weapon, and there is one stagey but entertaining enough cat-and-mouse exchange between Travolta and Woods. This bit of patter aside, the dialogue is rather lazy considering the screenwriter is Academy Award-winner William Goldman (All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The "We'll find that son of a bitch" line is unimaginative enough, but to throw in "Are you asking me if I'm fucking her?" not once but twice is just rude. In addition, there are characters -- Hutton's, Stowe's -- who aren't fully realized, which leads to the final gripe

The payoff bites. The climax of The General's Daughter leaves a distinct John Grisham-esque impression in that it has to be spelled out in order to make any sense. While the killer isn't exactly brought out of left field, he does come from the underdeveloped periphery. In the end, the viewer isn't thinking "Of course," but "Okay, whatever."


David Mamet's latest film, The Winslow Boy, is an adaptation of the play by Terence Rattigan, which he based on events in 1908 England. The question raised is simple enough: Should the powerful have more rights than the less powerful? And the answer is easy, too: No.

The Winslow Boy is Ronald Winslow (Guy Edwards), a 14-year-old cadet who has been expelled from the Naval College at Osbourne for forging a five-shilling postal note. Young Ronnie's father, the respected banker Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), asks his son if he is guilty. The boy says no, and the father seeks to clear his name with the help of his suffragist daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon).

After the school rejects Arthur's requests to have his son cleared, he hires Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), a lawyer known for his conservative views and his courtroom theatrics. Morton hopes to sue the Admiralty and the Crown, at a time when challenging these bodies is unthinkable. As the case is being argued before the House of Lords, public interest grows. The Winslows' resources dwindle and Catherine's relationship with her fiance disintegrates. Ronnie's mother (Gemma Jones) asks whether it's worth it, and Ronnie sees the whole matter as a distraction for his after-school hours.

The Winslow Boy is a sedate affair. Suggestions are dropped, minor props are used to good effect, and emotions are kept simmering just beneath the surface. Those emotions never do make an appearance -- all of the drama happens off-screen. Some, overstimulated by the gee-whizardry of The Phantom Menace and the uber-obviousness of Austin Powers, may find this approach a bit dull. Others, those just as overstimulated, may find it refreshing.


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