Thursday 17 March 2022

Movie Review: The General's Daughter (1999)

A murder mystery and thriller set in a military milieu, The General's Daughter offers slick production values but suffers from over-convoluted plotting.

On an army base in Georgia, Chief Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta) of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division wraps up a sting operation. His next case is the murder of Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), found naked and tied-up on the ground at an urban combat training facility. Elisabeth was an instructor in psychological operations, and also the daughter of celebrated General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), who is about to retire and enter politics.

Assisting Brenner is his former romantic partner, rape investigator and Chief Warrant Officer Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe). They initially focus on Elisabeth's shifty commander Colonel Bob Moore (James Woods) as a prime suspect. But soon the investigation becomes more complex, and secrets are revealed about Elisabeth's kinky sex life and her turbulent time at the West Point training academy.

A sordid sex-and-violence crime mystery complicated by honour-bound military traditions, The General's Daughter is polished but overstuffed. The Nelson DeMille novel is transferred to the screen with handsome visuals by cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., and director Simon West maintains a brisk pace and decorates with military hardware. But the investigative elements are overburdened by motivations straining credibility before devolving into a frantic whodunnit guessing game.

Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman collaborated on the script, and after a bright start they settle down to spraying suspicion on every character in turn, Agatha Christie style. Everyone has a motive and a secret to hide, and Brenner tosses accusations with limited evidence. The truth, once revealed, is bizarre enough to draw groans rather than admiration. The plot tends to wave at moral issues without properly engaging, just as it leaves murder investigation threads dangling. 

But the cross-cutting personal agendas maintain positive energy levels, and The General's Daughter is an effective conversation starter, posing difficult questions about toxicity and inertia within established institutions. At the heart of the drama are serious topics of rape, psychological damage, women in the military, personal sacrifice weighed against reputational damage, political ambitions, and a damaged father-daughter relationship. 

John Travolta is a robust presence at the heart of the action, and Madeleine Stowe is steady but could have benefited from more involvement. Best of all is James Woods, who injects an unsettling beady intensity into his few scenes. To maximize the number of suspects, the cast also finds space for Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Mark Boone Jr., and two redneck police officers named Yardley.

Eager and capable, The General's Daughter also favours excess over control.

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  1. This is not a great movie, but it's a good one. It's a favorite Clarence Williams III performance of mine because he is normally so unhinged and over-the-top. He's unhinged in a slightly different way for this one, but he's really effective.

    1. The cast is strong and the revelations non-stop. It's never boring, but goes over-the-top at every opportunity.


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