You might think HBO would be the right venue for a drama based on Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s 1970 counterhistory about Native Americans’ last stand against late-19th-century attempts to subjugate and reeducate them. Unfortunately, this film by Yves Simoneau is as dry and expository as the official textbooks that Brown’s fiery book aimed to refute.
A recent TheNew York Times piece accused HBO of diluting Brown’s book with composite characters, invented meetings and a unifying narrative loosely based on the life of Charles Eastman (Adam Beach of Flags of Our Fathers), a part-white reservation child who became a doctor, historian and activist. The problem isn’t that Eastman’s story is slathered over Brown’s epic like paste, or that Daniel Giat’s script has him popping up at pivotal events la Forrest Gump; if bending history to drama’s needs were a crime, Shakespeare would have swung from a rope; it’s the film’s dull storytelling that galls.
Yes, the battles feature stirring images—particularly a hawk’s-eye view of Sitting Bull’s Sioux warriors circling Custer’s men at Little Big Horn—and stray moments attain mythic power, particularly an early image of young Eastman having his braids lopped off by a white barber. But Eastman’s relationship with a straitlaced schoolteacher (Anna Paquin) is bland filler. The arguments over broken treaties and tribal wars (enacted mostly by Eastman and Aidan Quinn’s Senator Henry Dawes, architect of the government’s Native American policies) play like high-school debaters’ opening statements. And the film’s sterling backup cast of Native American performers—August Schellenberg, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, Gordon Tootoosis—is required to do too much iconic brooding and not enough acting. Wounded Knee wants to be a tribute to a defiant culture, but it won’t leave the dramatic reservation. — Matt Zoller Seitz