Gods and Generals Movie Review
Beginning in 1861, Generals chronicles the rise of the South's renowned Confederate leaders, spending most of its time on Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang). In fairness, the film also documents the climb to power of top Union brass Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), but Maxwell's focus remains south of the Mason-Dixon Line, his favorable bias towards the armies of Virginia apparent.
More than anything, Generals needs an editor. Pompous and unwieldy, the film gives new meaning to the term "excessive" and would test the patience of even the fondest history buff. The movie drags from one monotonous speech to the next. Maxwell's remarkably bloodless battle sequences are repetitive, and he pays needless amounts of attention to uninspired military maneuvers. So caught up in the details is Maxwell that he never establishes sentiment, no swell of pride for either side. His film is a clinical re-enactment, a big-budget documentation of the staged battles tourists can see on the side of I-95 in Maryland or Virginia.
On top of that, Maxwell's vision is hopelessly lopsided. This Civil War epic musters only two black characters who are permitted to speak, and the actors supply exaggerated "Uncle Tom" pitches to their dialogue. The audience would be less insulted if the actors stayed quiet. When Lang's "Stonewall" addresses his black cook Jim (Frankie Faison), he goes so far as to say that the Southern leaders opposed slavery, and would've released the slaves before too long. Sell crazy somewhere else!
White generals, meanwhile, speak with an air of importance, as if these powerhouses of American history somehow knew their words would land in our textbooks (seeing as movies weren't yet invented). The actors uniformly overact with a repressed zeal, leading me to blame Maxwell for his poor coaching. Also the screenwriter, Maxwell never passes up the opportunity to preach and lecture. The dusty discourse he gives to Daniels' general mid-battle will have you howling with laughter.
Whether intentional or not, Maxwell has crafted the most melodramatic piece of Southern propaganda since Gone With the Wind. The lengthy pacing will have you questioning whether Generals possesses an ending. I'll bet certain battles depicted in this film ended quicker than the movie. Maxwell strives for solemnity. Too bad he drives his messages of Southern loyalty and individual salvation into the ground with the subtlety of a cannonball to the gut.
Amazingly, the DVD is crammed on to a single disc (two sided, natch), adding a commentary track, making-of featurettes, and -- most impressively -- an ad inviting you to spend your tourism dollars in Virginia. Ungodly, generally awful.