Review: “Copperhead” is a Slow-Moving But Worthy Civil War Drama

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I reviewed Ron Maxwell’s “Copperhead” for Indiewire’s The Playlist, and gave the film a B-.

A Civil War movie without a battle scene is like…wait, what? A Civil War movie without a battle scene?! That is “Copperhead,” a sincere, slow-moving, occasionally successful film devoted to one specific homefront story. That, in itself, is noteworthy. After all, as many of the characters in Ron Maxwell’s film point out, in addition to the costs on the battlefield, there were many, many costs at home. Life carried on, uneasily, and as the war raged the number of fathers and sons who would return home upon its conclusion grew smaller and smaller. With such a stunning body count, it is not surprising to hear that there was a vocal minority against the conflict — including some Northerners.

“Copperhead,” based on a novella by Harold Frederic—whose “Damnation of Theron Ware” F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the best American novel” written before 1920—is the third straight Civil War film for Maxwell, director of the much-loved, quite lengthy “Gettysburg” and the much-derided, even lengthier “Gods and Generals.” It is a smaller-scale story, and that feels like a conscious effort on the part of the director. The film is centered on an upstate New York farmer and dissenter, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell—the Rocketeer!), and his family. Like so many young men on the cusp of adulthood, Abner’s son Jeff (Casey Thomas Brown) is ready to enlist, much to his father’s dismay.

Also causing family strife is Jeff’s relationship with Esther (Lucy Boynton), a sweet-natured school teacher who happens to be the daughter of Abner’s greatest enemy (what are the odds?), the crazy-eyed, ultra-shout-y Jee Hagadorn, played by a wonderfully over-the-top Angus Macfadyen. Eventually, Jeff, who is now going by the name Tom (Jeff being too close to Jefferson Davis for comfort), joins the Union army, leaving a devastated Esther to await his return. Meanwhile, the town grows increasingly hostile toward Abner and his family, dubbing them “Copperheads,” a term for Northerners opposed to the war. With Jee leading the charge, the situation becomes increasingly contentious, and Abner must decide how strong his convictions are.

It all culminates in a rather predictable series of events, and ends a bit too neatly for an on-the-homefront drama. We’re not used to semi-happy endings when it comes to the Civil War—victory having come at a such a great cost—and it is almost jarring here. But Maxwell earns that happy ending by virtue of a smart, thoughtful screenplay by Bill Kauffman. The dialogue is simple and believable, and the sheer number of well-rounded characters is noteworthy. It is not strong on action, however, and Maxwell, the filmmaker behind one of the finest Civil War battles sequences ever brought to the screen—the Little Round Top fight in “Gettysburg”—should have found a way to amp it up a tad. Both Kaufman (this was his first screenplay) and Maxwell will both do better work, but the sincerity they brought to this one is admirable.

What “Copperhead” most lacks—and this is likely by design—is any sense of urgency. Maxwell’s languid pacing does bring forth a feeling of living in the 1860s, of news traveling slowly and the style of everyday life being slowwwwwwwer. But it does not always make for a thrilling movie, especially for those unaccustomed to this style of storytelling. The film’s middle stretch, between Jeff’s leaving with the Union army and the sudden visit of Esther to Abner’s farm, is particularly lethargic, with scene after scene of characters missing Jeff, wondering about Jeff, contemplating Jeff.  For all of their Jeff ponderings, it seems Jeff (this review has now set a record for use of the name “Jeff”) should have been a bit more exciting … and he is not. In fact, Jeff’s central dilemma seems less involving than almost every other character. That is not the fault of young actor Casey Thomas Brown; it is simply a one-note role.

The other performances are mostly fine, with Lucy Boynton an adequate girl-next-door, and Billy Campbell quiet-voiced but strong-willed. It is nice to see the hard-working actor, most memorably seen on “The Killing,” with a lead. (Interestingly, he replaced Jason Patric during filming due to “creative differences.”) But it is Angus Macfadyen who dominates every scene in which he appears as the slavery-and Confederate-damning Jee Hagadorn. It is a performance of much huffing and puffing, but it is also very believable, even amidst the histrionics. Ironically, however, Macfadyen’s finest moment is a quiet one in which he utters a single devastating sentence to the son that has let him down by steering clear of military service. Meanwhile, Peter Fonda makes a couple of rather clunky appearances; the scenes are fine, but feel a bit engineered. (A newspaper is folded, and reveals…PETER FONDA!)

It is a statement of fact that those who consider themselves Civil War or history buffs will be much more forgiving of “Copperhead” than those who are not, and I see nothing wrong with that. For this audience, Ron Maxwell’s film will prove entertaining and though-provoking, at the very least. For the rest, it is unlikely to provide much dramatic sustenance. But that’s too bad, because even though “Copperhead” is nowhere near a great film, it is often a good one, a drama with real ideas about patriotism and dissent in times of conflict. It is a worthy entry in our growing list of Civil War cinema, and despite its flaws, it does not deserve to be ignored.

Photo from the Playlist review

“Copperhead” is an Involving, Intimate Civil War Drama — Catch it While You Can

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Smaller movies come and go at breakneck speed — I was looking to find where I could catch “The Bling Ring” later this week, and noticed it is already leaving local theaters after tomorrow — so if you have any interest in history, the Civil War, or simply adult drama, make sure to catch “Copperhead” this week at the Eastern Hills Mall. It is possible director Ron Maxwell’s film will still be playing after this Friday, but with such a crowded marketplace, I’d bet against it.

I saw the film on Saturday night, and found it an involving, handsome, well-acted film, one very different in tone and style from Maxwell’s “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.” It is a more intimate story (based on an acclaimed novella by Harold Frederic), to be sure, and one focused on a lesser known element of the Civil War: those dissenters who were against the conflict at all cost.

Billy Campbell — the Rocketeer! — stars as Abner Beech, a farmer vocally opposed to the war, to Lincoln, and to the attitudes of most of his upstate New York neighbors. At the top of this list is the fiery Jee Hagadorn, played by a spirited Angus Macfadyen. Beech’s son Jeff and Hagadorn’s father are in love — a development that thrills neither family — and soon, a defiant Jeff enlists in the Union army.

The story is at times predictable, and the pacing takes some getting used to — there is not a battle scene in this Civil War picture — but “Copperhead” never fails to entertain, and ranks as fine piece of historical cinema. (I’d go three stars, or a solid B/B+, with this one.)

One other important note re: “Copperhead”: The film is written by Batavia native Bill Kauffman, who appeared at Saturday’s screening and led a wide-ranging Q-and-A after the movie ended. His background is certainly unique; see his bio on the film’s website.

Incidentally, I wrote a piece for The Film Stage website last week on some lesser-known Civil War films to see before or after “Copperhead.” “Lesser known” is a bit misleading — Buster Keaton’s “The General” has long been proclaimed as one of the finest films ever made — but my thought was that many viewers may not have actually watched the film, and are simply aware of its reputation.

I’ll likely repost the piece here at some point, but in the meantime, click the above link and check it out. Perhaps you’ll find a solid streaming or rental idea.

Photo courtesy of copperheadthemovie.com..

Weekend Preview: Sarah Polley Explores Her Family’s “Stories” and Channing and Jamie Blow Stuff Up REAL Good

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Walking out of “Godzilla” at Blasdell’s McKinley Mall cinema on May 20, 1998, I made a solemn vow: I would never again pay to see a movie directed by Roland Emmerich on the big screen. In the years that followed, I rented virtually every one of his films — “The Patriot,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “10,000 B.C.,” “2012,” even the interesting but dopey “Anonymous” — and found all but “10,000” a major improvement over the sinfully dreary “Godzilla.”

It is not that Emmerich is untalented, or his work offensive. He is simply irrelevant, anonymous. I give him credit for finding new ways to blow up Washington, but if one is seeking something new, he is not the man to look toward.

His latest, “White House Down,” looks like a preposterous blast, but I can guarantee I will not be racing to see it at the theater. Sure, I’ll rent the Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx “Die Hard”-at-White-House romp, but if I’m going to pay my hard-earned cash, there are plenty of other options, such as …

“The Heat,” for one. For starters, it is directed by Paul Feig, the hilarious director of “Bridesmaids” and one of the minds behind the beloved “Freaks and Geeks.” Then there is the smart pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, one of the more novel buddy-cop duos in recent memory. The trailers look funny, and in a summer of weak-kneed comedy, this could prove a keeper.

In terms of box office, “White House Down” should have no trouble coming in at number one, although I would expect it to open below last week’s number two film, “World War Z.” “The Heat” should follow in the second spot, with “Monsters University” up next. It will be especially interesting to see if “Man of Steel” or “World War Z” slots in fourth. If it is “Z,” then the Brad Pitt-starrer, which opened with more money than expected, can safely be called a lasting success. (Let’s not discuss how much it cost.)

In the world of indies, there are two very different, very interesting films hitting WNY this weekend: Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Ronald F. Maxwell’s “Copperhead.”

Polley, of course, is the fine actress who moved into directing with the stunning “Away From Her” and the flawed but wonderful “Take This Waltz,” a film I despised at TIFF and adored months later. “Stories We Tell,” which debuted in Toronto last September, is a documentary on her mother, and the rumors that surrounded her own birth. It has received a rapturous response, pretty much across the board, and qualifies as a must-see.

Here is a wonderful segment of a Guardian piece on Polley and her acclaimed film:

“Sarah grew up with a family joke that she did not look anything like her siblings. Where did the reddish hair come from? Her mother used to laugh about it. There were other things she did not share with her siblings either. ‘I am highly strung, neurotic about responsibility and punctuality. I am compulsively early –I get to airports three hours early.’ In the film she determines to find out whether the joke has substance, a quest that will eventually lead to a ‘sick feeling of responsibility and an enormous crushing guilt that laid me out for a few weeks. I got really, really ill. It took a friend to clarify for me that finding a story is not the same as creating one.’ George Bernard Shaw wrote: ‘If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.’ In the film, that is what Sarah does.”

Meanwhile, “Copperhead” is the latest Civil War drama from Maxwell, the director of the great “Gettysburg” and the longgg “Gods and Generals.” I have a very personal connection to “Gettysburg” — my father was one of many reenactors who participated in the making of the film, and he can be glimpsed onscreen — but even without that link, I’d call it a very good film, with one of Jeff Daniels’ best performances. I never caught up with the less well-received “Gods,” but “Copperhead” seems an interesting follow-up.

It tells a much less-well-known story from the war between the states, focusing on opposition to the war in an upstate New York town. The cast includes “The Rocketeer” himself, Billy Campbell (who replaced Jason Patric during filming” and Peter Fonda, and it is worth noting that the film’s screenwriter, Bill Kauffman, is a Batavia, New York, native. (Incidentally, I wrote a piece on Civil War films that touches on “Coppherhead” for The Film Stage.)

One other note on “Copperhead”: Kauffman is set for a Q-and-A after screenings of the film this weekend.

Also opening this week, at the Elmwood Regal, is “Raanjhanaa,” a new Indian romantic drama that I must admit I am unfamiliar with. (Here is a Hollywood Reporter review.)

The Screening Room is once again showing Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; it is again followed at 9:20 on Saturday with the noir classic “D.O.A.”

Bacchus takes a few weeks off, returning with “Anchorman” on July 10, while the UB North Campus shows “Despicable Me” on Friday and “Forrest Gump” on Tuesday (July 2), both at 9:15, and the UB South Campus offers my friend Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day” on Wednesday (July 3).

Coming down the pike is “Despicable Me 2,” which I reviewed for the Buffalo News — look for it next Thursday— and Johnny Depp’s wow-this-looks-unappealing “The Lone Ranger.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go ponder why “The Bling Ring” is already disappearing from Buffalo screens …
Photo: Director of Cinematography Iris Ng (left) with Director Sarah Polley (right) in STORIES WE TELL. Credit: Ken Worone.