The General’s Daughter (review)

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Boys Will Be Boys

Director Simon West demonstrated his misogynistic tendencies with Con Air, an absurd and violent carnival of a movie with no use for anyone not male and macho and a particular disdain for women and gays. With The General’s Daughter, West moves into the realm of the less overtly bombastic, but while Daughter might have a glossier veneer than Con Air does, but it’s just as disturbing once you peel away the shiny top layers.

Based on the novel by Nelson DeMille, The General’s Daughter is the kind of mystery in which the detective has to penetrate a closed society in order to discover who killed one of their own, and why. Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta: A Civil Action, Primary Colors), an undercover military policeman, is a noncommissioned officer investigating the high-ranking elite, and as we’ve come to expect from stories like this, Brenner’s lower-middle-classness in a rarefied echelon will be ridiculed, secrets will be kept from him, and those trying to protect their little world will say tedious things like “You’ve been warned” and “You still don’t get it.”
Captain Elizabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) is found dead on an urban warfare training site. But not merely dead: She has apparently been tortured, raped, and murdered, her naked body spread-eagled and tied down to the muddy ground. West must love this imagery, because he keeps coming back to, particularly through an unnecessarily flashy computer re-creation the coroner uses in his investigation. It’s like a nasty parody of Da Vinci’s famous illustration of the man with his arms and legs spread, and it’s used like a logo, with distasteful casualness. We’re supposed to be horrified at her murder: Look at what they did to her! But West wants to titillate, too: Get a good long look. And in case you missed it, here’s another.

Captain Campbell is the daughter of a “great general,” Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell: The Green Mile, Snow Falling on Cedars), who’s about to retire and turn his ambitions to politics, perhaps the vice presidency. Our first hint that Brenner isn’t the brightest guy in the world — or perhaps just that the filmmakers hold the audience in contempt — is when he meets with General Campbell. Campbell wants to keep things quiet, wants to save his daughter from the insensitive media, he says, but how can it be obvious to the audience and not to Brenner that Campbell is as dirty as they come? There’s talk of “the right way, the wrong way, and the army way” of doing things; Campbell wants to know whether Brenner is a soldier or a policeman, and is pleased to hear that Brenner considers himself a solider first; and Campbell’s close aide, Colonel George Fowler (Clarence Williams III: The Legend of 1900), wants advance notification of any arrest Brenner makes. What other possible conclusion can there be but that these two are somehow involved in Elizabeth’s death? Doesn’t Brenner know that when someone in this brand of murder mystery says, “Just find the son of a bitch,” that guy himself is usually the son of a bitch?

West turns from cliché to sordidness, though, as Brenner — and his assistant, Warrant Officer Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe) — delve into Captain Campbell’s life. As they search her house, they find a kinky sex cave hidden behind a false wall in her basement, full of S&M gear and… wait for it… videos of her and all her male friends having fun. (And this just after West lingers on a shot of Elizabeth’s dancing ballerina jewelry box. Irony! She was a little girl and a messed-up woman rolled into one!) She was apparently banging all the guys in daddy’s command. The suggestion starts to be bandied about that perhaps she participated in her own murder.

And when it comes down to it, she did, in a way. In her unlikely and highly contrived meeting with Brenner before she died, she told him that in the Psychological Operations division in which she worked as an instructor, “mostly we fuck with people’s minds.” Though the narrative tries to link her death to a horrible attack she suffered at West Point, she’s dead now because she fucked with the minds of the men around her — in particular, her father and one other man — just before her death. She was, in effect, punished for being wilier than they were.

And as if to drive home the point, Sunhill gets punished, too, for fucking with the mind of a man: Brenner. His instant animosity as her unwanted help, as a rape counselor and investigator, is thrust upon his inquiry goes unexplained for a good while — I guess the insult of having to work with a woman is supposed to be enough. But when we get the full story — she dumped him, basically — we’re supposed to understand that he’s totally justified in hating her.

The General’s Daughter pretends to sympathize with women, but it doesn’t bother to indict the military’s war on the women in its own ranks. Instead, it blames the women for their own problems, which they bring on themselves by being uppity and bold.

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