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THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell, Clarence Williams III, James Woods
Director:  Simon West
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  December 14, 1999

Film ***

The General’s Daughter is essentially a mystery movie…one that starts a little slowly, and ends in a somewhat unsatisfying way.  But what’s in between the beginning and the ending is pure dynamite.

John Travolta plays Paul Brenner, a member of the Army’s criminal investigation department—sort of an internal affairs for the military.  He’s very good at his job, which involves many complex aspects.  He can deliver terrible news with a soft, sympathetic touch.  On the other hand, he can be a bit flippant when it comes to dealing with the horrors of what he does.  You get the feeling it’s somewhat of a necessary defense mechanism, to help keep his head clear as he goes about his work.  He is a man with enough courage to put his life on his line for his job, as demonstrated early on in the film when he sets up and busts an illegal arms deal.  But his courage is about to be tested in ways beyond simply risking his life.

His newest assignment is to investigate the murder of a female captain, who also happens to be the daughter of the base’s general.  Naturally, the murder turns out to be more complicated and far reaching than he initially suspects.  Eventually, the investigation will force himself to answer a question put to him early on…is he a cop, or a soldier?  Is his primary loyalty to the Army he serves, or to justice at any cost?

This is a little more than your typical military mystery, a la Courage Under Fire.  Certain aspects are bound to weigh heavy on your mind as you watch.  For instance, the murdered captain’s specialty was psychological warfare…learning how to slowly unravel your enemy’s mental stability so that he or she is no longer able to function and fight.  Did her field of study play a role in her death?  Also, we eventually learn some details about her past that are rather shocking.  Horrifying, really.  At any rate, Paul finds himself in something much more deep than a standard whodunit case.

I don’t want to delve into the particulars of the case, as there are many terrific twists and turns along the way.  Instead, I want to focus on some of the other particulars of the film…mainly, the performances.  John Travolta has offered quite an abundance of impressive work in the 90’s, and this film could possibly be his finest moment.  Paul is a challenging character, with a full array of emotions that might seem to conflict with one another in the hands of a lesser actor.  Travolta’s keen grasp of Paul allows him to flow between the emotions evenly and believably.  And most impressive of the supporting players is James Woods.  When he shares the screen with Travolta, their chemistry is electric.  These are two masters of their crafts pushing one another to greater heights, and the fact that one plays an investigator and one plays a psychologist, and both are used to chess games of the mind in their work…well, the result is a quietly intense cat and mouse game.  One can only hope this movie won’t be the last pairing of these two men.

But the cast is terrific across the board, including the always excellent Clarence Williams III, and James Cromwell.  And Madeline Stowe returns to the screen in top form after a far-too-long absence. 

This is the kind of film that gets better and more involving the more it goes along, which is a terrific cinematic achievement.  If there’s one flaw, it’s that the final resolution to the mystery seemed a bit weak, and a bit obvious from a dramatic standpoint.  In other words, it’s the kind of film where the journey is more fulfilling than the destination.

But you don’t get on a roller coaster to go somewhere.  You do it for the thrill of the ride.  And when it’s all over, it’s the dives, twists and turns you remember…not cruising along the final stretch before stepping off.

Video ***1/2

This is a terrific anamorphic transfer from Paramount.  The only real weakness is not a transfer flaw, but poor lighting choices in certain scenes.  Some indoor shots were obviously going for a more film noir shadowy effect, but they were constructed the wrong way, using sparse and dim lighting as opposed to brighter lights broken up with objects to create the shadows.  As a result, a few scenes are murky and lack definition.  In some darker outdoor scenes, the camera picks up an inordinate amount of “burns” from the lighting sources.  Apart from these, daylit scenes are beautiful, with excellent sharpness, coloring and detail.  Nowhere is there grain or compression evident.  As mentioned, the flaws are in the film…no transfer could fix them.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is terrific, though the picture is mostly driven by dialogue and background music.  There are a few choice scenes that spring to dynamic life, though, using the rear stage and .1 channel sparsely, and those are particularly good.

Features ***1/2

Paramount is also showing improvements in the features department.  This disc contains a Simon West commentary, a short documentary, two trailers, and four deleted scenes.

Summary:

The General’s Daughter is not a perfect film, but rather the kind where the best aspects more than make up for the weaker ones.  It’s a well crafted and superbly acted piece that will engross you more and more as it plays out.  Fans of John Travolta in particular should in no way miss this movie.