In 'Adventures in the Screen Trade,' William Goldman theorized that it takes a character actor — in this case, Robert Duvall — to play a person as unlikable as Colonel Bull Meecham and still make the audience care. Unfortunately, many of us still don't care.Intellectually, we may understand Bull. He's a gung-ho Marine pilot who lords it over his family — especially his meek son (Michael O'Keefe) — because he knows no other way to relate to people. But Duvall's performance, authentically hateful (not to mention monotonous), makes it impossible to identify with Bull. So the movie becomes about a family dealing with having Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now as the head of the household.
We experience Bull's tirades through the eyes of his family, who are drawn as passive, yet all of them (particularly the impressive Blythe Danner as Bull's wife) seem too smart to be stuck with this macho jerk. The scene Goldman singles out in his book — Bull loses a basketball game to his eldest son and bounces the ball off the kid's head, all the while demanding that he "cry" like a "little girl" — is forceful, as are the scenes wherein Bull gets the son drunk or stands on the sidelines during the kid's big basketball game, shouting that if he screws up, he shouldn't bother coming home. But, again, these moments only alienate us further from Bull, who stays a cartoon ogre to the end.If we sensed just a little humanity in Bull — if he were less an intimidating beast than a complex, essentially insecure man — the movie would really have something. But Duvall can't, or won't, play it that way, and the result is two-dimensional and minor.