Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Writers: Harold Frederic (novel), Bill Kauffman (screenplay)
Stars: Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Casey Thomas Brown, Lucy Boynton, Augustus Prew, François Arnaud, Peter Fonda
I’m a bit of a history buff, I’m not ashamed to admit it. My particular area of interest in the Civil War so whenever there’s a new movie out that takes place during that time period I’m always interested to see how they represent the era. When I learned that Ronald F. Maxwell was directing the movie I was especially interested. I’m a huge fan of Gettysburg and felt that Gods and Generals wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be, although it could have been better. So it was only natural that I’d want to watch his latest Civil War era movie, Copperhead. Unfortunately it’s nothing like its predecessors, and that’s a bad thing.
Maxwell had always wanted to make a trilogy of Civil War movies, and thankfully Copperhead isn’t the final piece of his puzzle. Instead it’s a stand alone movie that merely takes places during the war between the States. Based on a novel by Harold Frederic, the film and book take the name from the old term Copperhead, a word that was used to describe the citizens of the North who were anti-war and felt that Lincoln and the Republicans were ripping the country apart, and killing the Constitution.
The story takes place in a small community in Upstate New York during the second year of the war. Most families in the small isolated town are farmers who work the land with their families. Two such families find themselves on opposite sides in regards to their opinions of the war. The Beech family, headed by Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) has one biological son Thomas Jefferson Beech (Casey Brown) and an adopted son James. His biological son Jeff is head-strong and find himself at odds with his favor over the war. He has his eye on Esther (Lucy Boynton), the daughter of Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen) an outspoken supporter of the war and Lincoln. Hagadorn is also an affluent member of the town and is influential in persuading others to join his side. The star crossed lovers Esther and Jeff continue their courtship in spite of their father’s objections towards each other. When Jeff decides to enlist in the war to impress Esther he does so without telling his father face to face, instead having his brother do it for him. This causes Abner to disown Jeff and drives him to refuse to see him off as he marches out with the other Union recruits.
Abner never wavers from his stubbornness, though he softens on his initial disowning of his son. He’s repeatedly shown checking the New York Tribune casualty lists with parental concern. Abner’s ideology influences his family’s opinions and eventually, the entire town begins to turn on Abner and his family in appalling and shameful ways; all because of Abner’s anti-war philosophy and disapproval of Lincoln. This leads to a series of tragic events that nearly kills Esther, and which in turn forces Jee to make some heavy handed decisions that will impact everyone.
While the town is busy forming a near lynch mob, Jee’s son Ni (Augustus Prew) is off to find his friend Jeff, not only for himself and Abner but for his sister as well. Ni’s travels take him to Maryland and beyond, but in the end he returns to the small town in Upstate New York with Jeff, who has suffered at the hands of a cruel war. Ni delivers an impassioned speech during a funeral service, one that questions why the small town does not practice what the Bible teaches; to love thy neighbor.
Copperhead had the potential to be a good movie, but there were far too many issues with it. The pace of the movie was extremely slow, almost as if they were trying to fill out two hours when it could have easily take an hour to an hour and a half. There were far too many moments where the plots just seemed to stop moving ahead, it entered a lull and didn’t know how to get out of it. It almost felt as if were edited for commercial breaks, as if they were editing the movie as a two-hour Hallmark Movie Channel production.
The acting didn’t help either, it was all over the place. From the seriousness of Abner Beech, to the inclusion of Peter Fonda’s blacksmith (who’s inclusion feels like they were just trying to get a big name on the marquee), the characters acted like they were all playing parts in different movies. It felt disjointed. Throw in some of the most distracting accents and it made some of the performances even more irritable. Then there’s the soundtrack, which never really captured the feel of the movie. Again, it felt like something you’d hear in a Hallmark movie of the week.
Overall, Copperhead was extremely disappointing. I knew going in that there would be no big battle scenes like Maxwell’s previous Civil War movies, but I was hoping for the tiniest bit of excitement. Instead I was left with a feeling of disappointment. The slow pacing and uneven acting made for a disappointing experience. I think I may be a little generous with the one and a half stars and unfortunately Copperhead is a movie I could never recommend. That is unless I’m recommending movies to stay away from.