With an epic scale, an all-star cast and a combined running time of more than seven hours, director Ronald F. Maxwell’s Civil War chronicles Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003) were every armchair Robert E. Lee’s dream come true. For his latest, Maxwell returns to the War Between the States (this time without Ted Turner’s deep pockets) to take on the “copperheads”—Northern Democrats who deemed Lincoln’s actions unconstitutional. Men like Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), an antiabolitionist who thinks Honest Abe should stick to the founding fathers’ laws; his adversary Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen) is a Union loyalist who supports brother fighting brother. Modern context doesn’t make it easy to get behind Beech as a hero, and screenwriter Bill Kauffman does little to convince otherwise, especially when scenes of kids going off to war are played in the same note as Beech’s dinner table talks.
Copperhead livens up only when Beech and fiery Irish Democrat Hurley (Hugh Thompson, the cast’s standout) are provoked into action and, after abolitionists deny them the right to vote, ballot-casting escalates to fisticuffs. The idea of pro-Union citizens discriminating against their fellow Yanks to the point of tar-and-feathering is fascinating. But given Maxwell’s dry style and fixation on 19th-century vernacular, the result is less like a peering examination of the turbulent political environment than a reenactment of a Ken Burns documentary—or a museum tour.
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