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Tucson Weekly Dishonorable Discharge

'The General's Daughter' Is An Exploitive Murder Mystery.

By James DiGiovanna

JUNE 28, 1999:  HAVING SEEN THE cheesy trailer for this film, I really thought it was going to be one of the worst of the year. To avoid the pain of seeing it, I had planned to just review the TV commercial for it:

"The General's Daughter: In this choppy, ill-conceived film of 60-seconds length, John Travolta appears to be either very angry or very concerned about something, and also there is an explosion and something happening at night and, I think, something bad happens or happened that needs to be dealt with. Then the words 'Best Murder Mystery In Years' appear, and then another commercial comes on."

However, my editor told me I couldn't just run that paragraph and then fill out the page with lots of graphics, because "people would notice." OK, "people," thanks to you, I had to actually go see this movie.

Oddly, it wasn't even bad, at least on its merits as well-crafted cinema. It actually is a pretty decent murder/mystery, if by "decent" I don't mean 1) socially or conventionally correct, 2) according with custom or propriety, 3) conforming to conventions of sexual behavior, 4) observing conventional sexual mores in speech, behavior or dress. By those standards, it's an "indecent" film, and maybe one without a real excuse for its indecency.

The story concerns a crime on a Southern army base. I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that a close relative of the general is murdered, and it's not his son, wife, or sibling.

Anyway, John Travolta plays a member of the CID (the army's Criminal Investigations Division) who is assigned to the case. Travolta is tremendously charming in this role. The woman I saw this film with said Travolta was too old and fat to be attractive, but I thought his suave and smooth style made him totally sex-hot. He gets laughs out of mediocre lines just by virtue of his winning delivery. It's just impossible not to like him.

Unfortunately, he plays opposite Madeline Stowe, and though the two are supposed to be ex-lovers, they have no chemistry. Every time the story veers toward their relationship it just becomes quietly unpleasant.

Stowe's character, Warrant Officer Sarah Sunhill, and Travolta's character, Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, work together in investigating the murder. The detective work brings to light the army's culture of machismo and its effects on female soldiers. On the surface, the story, which slowly unfolds the history of a gang rape on a young officer, seems to offer a sensitive portrayal of the effects of the assault. Since so much of the story comes through in the investigation, and thus is part of the mystery, I'd rather not spoil it, but it's important to note that much hinges on the relation between father and daughter, and the damage done to that relationship, and to the daughter's psyche, by the father's inappropriate reaction to the rape.

However, and this is a big "however," the film's visuals depend excessively on images of a young woman tied, naked, to the ground, with tent pegs. She's shown in that position repeatedly, both alive and dead, and, in one long and disturbing sequence, during the gang rape. These scenes seem to be designed explicitly to be titillating, as her body is photographed in toto, with no shadow or intervening image. If the director had simply wanted to make these scenes terrifying, he could have done that with a close-up on her face. Using that technique, a good actress would have been able to create an incredibly uncomfortable, but thematically important, performance. Instead, actress Leslie Stefanson, who plays the role, seems to have been cast mostly for the fact that she has a perfect body. This comes across as rather crass pornography.

This is unfortunate, because otherwise the film is fairly subtle. The plot unfolds evenly; the music, by Carter Burwell, is weird, compelling and non-obtrusive; and the cinematography is gorgeous. Any one of these would be rare in a Hollywood film, which usually just excretes a plot in the first few minutes and then spends an hour spiraling towards an obvious conclusion, with thudding music and glaring visuals that are designed to tell you exactly how to feel.

Because of this, I hate to dwell on the morality of the film. I really have nothing against naked people--they're my favorite kind of people. But this film isn't good enough to excuse this kind of lapse. (Basically, it's no Triumph of the Will.) Plus, it plays itself off as a morality tale, and thus opens itself up to criticism on this point. In the end, a text scroll notes that there are more women in the military now than at any other time in history. There is an implication that this is a great accomplishment, but one of the central issues of this film is the negative psychological impact of a rape cover-up. The rape was covered up, it seems, to ensure that women would feel comfortable joining the military, so the final text scroll seems aimed at vindicating what the rest of the film condemns. I'm sure this was just poor thinking on the filmmakers' part, but it's just that kind of thoughtlessness which causes The General's Daughter to cross the line from well-paced mystery movie to tasteless exploitation film.


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