Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this was a movie about the battery business.
Divided by War, United by Love…
The term post-racial gets thrown around a lot in the media. Now that America has had its first nonwhite president, there seems to be a feeling that the problems of race have disappeared. If only. I don't want to discourse too widely on the contemporary problems of race, but it's clear from watching the news that the problem of race hasn't gone away. What I'm more interested is the fact that the contemporary moment seems to be the perfect opportunity for examining the legacy of race in America. Films like 12 Years a Slave have made that legacy both dramatically interesting and relevant to viewers. The Civil War seems like the perfect subject for tackling these kinds of issues (and some certainly do), but in the case of Civil War drama Copperhead, viewers are left with only the most prosaic insights into slavery, war, and what happens on the home front.
Abner Beech (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer) is a farmer in upstate New York who is opposed to both Lincoln's war and slavery, which earns him contempt from both sides. His defiance earns him the rancor of his son, who joins up to fight slavery, as well as the enmity of anti-slavery rabble-rouser Jee Hagadorn (Angus McFadyen, Titus).
The cover art for Copperhead proudly proclaims that it's the third film in a trilogy of Civil War pics by director Ronald Maxwell. Things kicked off with Gettysburg, in 1993, were followed up by Gods and Generals in 2003, and now we have Copperhead. Beyond the astonishingly consistent ten-year timeline, these films fit together in instructive ways. The most obvious is that Maxwell is expanding his vision film by film. Gettysburg is about a single battle. Though that battle was pivotal in terms of the overall war, and exemplary of the scale of violence and sacrifice by both sides, it sticks fairly close to a single incident. Gods and Generals expanded Maxwell's canvas, taking stock of Stonewall Jackson's career over two years. With Copperhead, Maxwell pulls back even farther, showing less the Civil War than its inevitable fallout as the military battles are mirrored by battles at home.
The other thing we can learn from Copperhead, though, is that Maxwell's talents don't lie with this kind of intimate storytelling. There's little doubt that Gettysburg is the most successful film of the trilogy, and the returns diminish sharply with each new film. By the time we get to Copperhead, there's very little that doesn't feel like bad historical reenactment for a high school history lesson. It takes someone of truly terrible talent to screw up Gettysburg—it's such an inherently dramatic situation that as long as you get the players and the violence in the frame, it doesn't take much more to keep viewer interest. Copperhead, however, requires a deft touch; this kind of historical material (and it is based on a true story) needs subtlety to make it feel like anything other than a history lesson.
Not that there's anything wrong with a history lesson. I'm amenable to being told some important truth if that's what's being offered. Copperhead, however, is content to repeat the same banal observations about "brother against brother." There might be some dramatic potential in the basic story—mirroring violence on the battlefield with violence on the home is a good idea—but there simply isn't enough plot or character development to justify the 120 minutes the film drags on for.
Finally, the film suffers from the lowest budget of the three films. The look of the film is pedestrian, and the sound quality feels a bit rushed at times. Though I sometimes enjoy both Billy Campbell and Angus Macfadyen as actors, there's not enough character for them to bring their "A" game. In this sense, it's good that the film doesn't have to stage any big battles or heroic deeds, as the budget would show even more, but even this is a mixed blessing as the film still looks like the most pedestrian of the three.
At least Copperhead (Blu-ray) is decent. The film's 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is pretty good. Aside from some occasional softness (which probably says more about the budget than this transfer), we get rich detail and well-saturated colors. Black levels are generally pretty deep and fairly consistent. The DTS-HD 5.1 mix is also decent. Dialogue is occasionally mixed a bit low, but it sounds more like a location sound problem than a difficulty with this track. Balance, though, is otherwise okay, and there's a bit of directionality.
There are no extras, which is a bit of a shame, as I'd like to hear more about how the production went and how Maxwell decided to revisit his subject.
Copperhead has good intentions—giving viewers a sense of what the home front was like during the Civil War—but the execution never reaches anything dramatic. Instead, we get a pedantic history lesson disguised as an overlong story of a small town. Though the film's presentation is fine on Blu-ray, the lack of extras is the final nail in the not-worth-a-rental coffin.
Guilty of exploiting history.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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