If the 3 hour and 49 minute Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" is any indication, the Union and the Confederate armies must have talked each other to death.
The movie has, at most, five scattered minutes of story addressing the political issues that split the nation in 1861. It has maybe 30 minutes of battle scenes and another 15 focused exclusively on Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's pneumonia.
The balance of the picture is spent on florid speeches, polemic pontifications and protracted prayers, extensively detailed attack plans, scene after scene exploring the marriages of its military icons, and passing mentions of slavery (which apparently no one in this Southern army actually favored), while largely ignoring the other more direct causes of the war.
Everyone is noble, honorable and full of fire. Everyone is spirited, passionate and poetic about everything that comes out of their mouths, especially their reluctance to fight their fellow countrymen. And apparently every passing minute of the conflict had a tremendous sense of occasion.
This meticulous account of the Civil War -- or rather, an incomplete fraction of the war, since the film tells the story only up to the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 -- may be fascinating stuff to period aficionados like producer Ted Turner and the thousands of enthusiastic Blue- and Grey-uniformed re-enactors hired to help create the picture's battle scenes. But speaking as a history buff of more general interest, this overly emotional yet textbook-bland marathon is a downright bore.
The film follows two regiments -- Jackson's from the South and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's from the North -- through very specific particulars of specific battles (Manassas and Fredericksburg) on specific days during their inevitable march toward each other in Chancellorsville.
Chamberlain is played by Jeff Daniels, who simply doesn't have the dramatic weight to carry his half of the movie. Paired with Mira Sorvino as his wife, their scenes together play like a bad audition, both of them struggling to wrap their mouths around out-sized period dialogue that just doesn't suit them.
But stage actor Steven Lang (he's been in "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Tombstone" on the big screen) gives a powerhouse performance as Jackson -- and it's he alone that counteracts the sleeping-pill character of this seemingly endless film.
Providing his character so much depth, dimension and vivid personality that he seems like a 3-D character in a 2-D world, Lang looks rugged and roughshod but radiates honor and prudence as he wraps himself to great effect in both Jackson's robust fearlessness and his stanch, fundamental religious faith.
But, oh the three-page speeches he has to give again and again and again! Just saying a prayer with his Negro cook (Frankie Faison) burns four or five minutes of screen time, so you can just imagine how long-winded he gets when preparing to meet the Yankees on the film's three battlefields.
Writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell (who adapted this film as a prequel to his 1993 "Gettysburg," both from a historical novel by Jeffrey M. Shaara) maintains minute accuracy to the utmost, going into great detail about how, for instance, hesitant Gen. Ambrose Burnside (Alex Hyde-White) blew his chance to take Fredericksburg while it was virtually undefended.
But Maxwell's filmmaking is so elementary -- the same camera angles are used over and over as battalion after battalion charge in the same direction up the same hill -- that these war scenes are almost as dry metaphorically as they are literally. Most soldiers die instantaneously in "Gods and Generals," and do so without spilling a drop of blood. This is likely because a six-hour version of the film (good God!) is slated to become a miniseries on TNT, so everything had to be kept PG-13. The horrors of war do still come across more than adequately, even if the battles themselves do not.
I did learn several interesting facts from this picture, such as at that time loyalty to one's state was considered above loyalty to the Union -- which is why Gen. Robert E. Lee (played by Robert Duvall) fought for Virginia instead accepting President Lincoln's offer to lead the Union Army. From his point of view, he was defending his homeland against invasion.
But the story has no narrative arc and nothing driving it other than a faithful recreation of Civil War minutiae. The movie is plagued by other problems too, not the least of which are shoddy computer-generated shots meant to recreate period cities and the fact that Jeff Daniels' Gen. Chamberlain -- ostensibly a main character -- completely disappears in the 15 minutes before the credits roll.
It's sad to say -- but I think safe to say -- that since Maxwell employed thousands of re-enactors on "Gods and Generals," 90 percent of people who wouldn't be bored silly by it are probably in it. The question is, will they now pay to see it?
Box Office Worldwide: $12.9M
Production compaines: Antietam Filmworks, Turner Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Starring: Stephen Lang as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Jeff Daniels as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Kevin Conway as Sgt. Buster Kilrain, C. Thomas Howell as Sgt. Thomas Chamberlain, Jeremy London as Capt. Alexander 'Sandie' Pendleton, Matt Letscher as Col. Adelbert Ames, Brian Mallon as Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, Bo Brinkman as Maj. Walter Taylor, Bruce Boxleitner as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, William Sanderson as Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill, Billy Campbell as Maj. Gen. George Pickett, Joseph Fuqua as Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart
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