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Our review of Gettysburg (Blu-ray), published September 5th, 2011, is also available.
Same land. Same God. Different dreams.
Col. Chamberlain: "What a piece of work is man, in form and movement how
express and admirable. In action, how like an angel."
Facts of the Case
It's the summer of 1863, and the leaders of the Confederate Army feel they may be close to securing victory in the Civil War. The North and South are preparing for a massive conflict in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and it quickly becomes clear that there's going to be an enormous loss of life regardless of what happens. General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen, The West Wing) is determined to make Gettysburg the last major battle the Confederacy will have to fight. Recognizing that the war could be won or lost within the next few days, General George Meade (Richard Anderson, Paths of Glory) and his forces brace themselves for the onslaught. Over the course of three violent days, we follow key figures like Brig. Gen. John Buford (Sam Elliot, The Big Lebowski), Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber), Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett (Stephen Lang, Avatar), Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger, Inception), Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead (Richard Jordan, The Hunt for Red October), Sgt. Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway, The Quick and the Dead), and Lt. Thomas D. Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell, Red Dawn).
One suspects that Ted Turner might have made a grand studio head in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He's got some of that same mad zeal, business savvy, colorful personality and reckless ambition that marked some of the early titans of the business. His favorite film is Gone with the Wind, which was the sort of lavish, commercially successful, critically praised epic that so many unsuccessfully attempted to mimic over the years. Turner's production of Gettysburg (capably directed by Ronald F. Maxwell) often feels like one of the great lost films of the 1940s, an enjoyably old-fashioned affair that offers very few moments that couldn't have been made fifty years earlier. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it isn't: Gettysburg is an exceptionally absorbing modern epic (not to mention a good deal more tolerable than Gone with the Wind).
Maxwell and Turner pulled off an impressive feat with this picture: creating a war epic that proved equally satisfying for history enthusiasts and newcomers who didn't know the Civil War from silverware. Granted, the film didn't exactly set the box office on fire (perhaps due to its massive running time: 254 minutes in theatres, and 271 minutes on this Blu-ray release), but it built a reputation and found a larger audience on home video. Gettysburg is good drama and good history, and it somehow finds a way to convey information about the minutiae of battle in a manner which is involving and accessible. To be sure, those who own numerous bulky hardcovers on the subject will know the details already (in the area where I grew up, the Civil War—erm, "The War of Northern Aggression," as many bitter southerners continue to label it—was a common obsession), but most viewers will actually feel they've learned something.
The fact that Gettysburg is both emotionally and intellectually involving might not seem like an enormous accomplishment, but consider how many war epics have failed in this regard. It's easy for a movie to get so wrapped up in making sure that compelling human drama is accentuated that it loses focus on the details of the actual war. Consider the 1966 film The Battle of Britain, which offered so many stirring speeches but rarely bothered to clarify who was doing what to whom. How about Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, which used its central historical event as a backdrop to tiresome melodrama? Part of what makes Gettysburg enthralling is that we always know what those hordes of men are trying to accomplish, why those cannonballs are being fired into the areas they're being fired into and precisely what's at stake.
It's difficult to be objective when it comes to this particular war, as the issues at stake are too hot to simply shrug off as opposing but similarly valid points of view. Gettysburg is fairly clear about the fact that it believes the Northern cause to be the righteous one, yet it considers the men in the film not as mere allies of a collective philosophy but as individuals. There are fools and saints on both sides of the battlefield, and Gettysburg allows viewers to see men like Lee and Longstreet as decent, exceptional men even as it causes viewers to nod in agreement when Col. Chamberlain suggests that a victory against the South is a victory for freedom. This is largely due to the manner in which the film reminds us that there were many reasons men joined the war, and fighting for a particular cause wasn't necessarily chief among them.
The actors are encouraged to embrace an old-school theatricality in their performances, but that works quite well for a larger-than-life tale like this. The strongest turn comes from Jeff Daniels, who infuses Chamberlain with a gentle decency which is quite affecting. He's one of the few characters who really seems to appreciate the full weight of what he's fighting for, and Daniels aces every one of his scenes. Similarly impressive is Richard Jordan, playing Armistead as a man who is filled with deep regret as he contemplates facing one of his old friends on the battlefield. Sheen brings some interesting shades to Lee, initially playing up his quiet dignity but later suggesting that he lost the battle because he temporarily permitted himself to believe he was invincible. Sam Elliot and Stephen Lang also stand out in smaller roles, bringing their distinctive presences to a pair of pivotal supporting figures on opposing sides of the war.
Gettysburg arrives on Blu-ray sporting a somewhat disappointing 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The entire four-and-half-hour film has been stuffed onto a single Blu-ray disc, and it seems to have suffered a bit as a result. Too many scenes in the film look like an exceptional DVD upconversion, as considerable softness plagues the picture throughout. During the scenes featuring thousands of extras, we're craving eye-popping detail but never quite get it. One would expect a production of this size (particularly one made less than twenty years ago) to look a whole lot better. Colors are warm and appealing, black levels are reasonably deep and flesh tones are accurate, though. Audio is similarly middling, as the battle scenes never quite manage to deliver that thunderously immersive experience they ought to. This should be a remarkably engaging track, but it rarely approaches anything too exciting. At least Randy Edelman's score (very enjoyable, but perhaps a tad too chipper on occasion) comes through with strength. Most of the dialogue is clear, though a few lines sound a little muffled.
The film itself may not look as attractive as I had hoped it would, but at least the package it comes in is nice-looking. Gettysburg has received a plus-sized digibook package, and it'll look quite handsome on your shelf. The book includes full-color pages offering behind-the-scenes info, cast and crew bios, photos and other fun stuff. In terms of non-physical extras, we receive a commentary featuring Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Ostrum, author James McPherson and historian Craig Symonds. The set also includes a bonus DVD, offering some worthwhile behind-the-scenes featurettes: "The Making of Gettysburg" (52 minutes), "The Battle of Gettysburg" (30 minutes), "The Journey Through Hallowed Ground" (7 minutes), "On Location" (6 minutes) and "Maps of the Battlefield" (8 minutes). You also get a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are certainly a few moments which might strike some as being a shade overcooked. Consider the exchange between Lee and Pickett near the end of the film, marked by unintentionally amusing dramatic close-ups, line deliveries and soundtrack swells. There are certainly moments which could have benefited from a more naturalistic approach, but this just isn't that kind of movie. If you have trouble accepting that, you may have a difficult time enjoying the film.
Gettysburg falls short of being the masterpiece it aspires to be, but it's still an exceptional, worthy film and a comprehensive examination of one of the bloodiest chapters in American history. The middling transfer and sound are the only things which prevent me from giving this release a hearty recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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