A Civil War movie without a battle scene is like…wait, what? A Civil War movie without a battle scene?! That is “Copperhead,” a sincere, slow-moving, occasionally successful film devoted to one specific homefront story. That, in itself, is noteworthy. After all, as many of the characters in Ron Maxwell’s film point out, in addition to the costs on the battlefield, there were many, many costs at home. Life carried on, uneasily, and as the war raged the number of fathers and sons who would return home upon its conclusion grew smaller and smaller. With such a stunning body count, it is not surprising to hear that there was a vocal minority against the conflict — including some Northerners.
“Copperhead,” based on a novella by Harold Frederic—whose “Damnation of Theron Ware” F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the best American novel” written before 1920—is the third straight Civil War film for Maxwell, director of the much-loved, quite lengthy “Gettysburg” and the much-derided, even lengthier “Gods and Generals.” It is a smaller-scale story, and that feels like a conscious effort on the part of the director. The film is centered on an upstate New York farmer and dissenter, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell—the Rocketeer!), and his family. Like so many young men on the cusp of adulthood, Abner’s son Jeff (Casey Thomas Brown) is ready to enlist, much to his father’s dismay.
Also causing family strife is Jeff’s relationship with Esther (Lucy Boynton), a sweet-natured school teacher who happens to be the daughter of Abner’s greatest enemy (what are the odds?), the crazy-eyed, ultra-shout-y Jee Hagadorn, played by a wonderfully over-the-top Angus Macfadyen. Eventually, Jeff, who is now going by the name Tom (Jeff being too close to Jefferson Davis for comfort), joins the Union army, leaving a devastated Esther to await his return. Meanwhile, the town grows increasingly hostile toward Abner and his family, dubbing them “Copperheads,” a term for Northerners opposed to the war. With Jee leading the charge, the situation becomes increasingly contentious, and Abner must decide how strong his convictions are.
It all culminates in a rather predictable series of events, and ends a bit too neatly for an on-the-homefront drama. We’re not used to semi-happy endings when it comes to the Civil War—victory having come at a such a great cost—and it is almost jarring here. But Maxwell earns that happy ending by virtue of a smart, thoughtful screenplay by Bill Kauffman. The dialogue is simple and believable, and the sheer number of well-rounded characters is noteworthy. It is not strong on action, however, and Maxwell, the filmmaker behind one of the finest Civil War battles sequences ever brought to the screen—the Little Round Top fight in “Gettysburg”—should have found a way to amp it up a tad. Both Kaufman (this was his first screenplay) and Maxwell will both do better work, but the sincerity they brought to this one is admirable.
What “Copperhead” most lacks—and this is likely by design—is any sense of urgency. Maxwell’s languid pacing does bring forth a feeling of living in the 1860s, of news traveling slowly and the style of everyday life being slowwwwwwwer. But it does not always make for a thrilling movie, especially for those unaccustomed to this style of storytelling. The film’s middle stretch, between Jeff’s leaving with the Union army and the sudden visit of Esther to Abner’s farm, is particularly lethargic, with scene after scene of characters missing Jeff, wondering about Jeff, contemplating Jeff. For all of their Jeff ponderings, it seems Jeff (this review has now set a record for use of the name “Jeff”) should have been a bit more exciting … and he is not. In fact, Jeff’s central dilemma seems less involving than almost every other character. That is not the fault of young actor Casey Thomas Brown; it is simply a one-note role.
The other performances are mostly fine, with Lucy Boynton an adequate girl-next-door, and Billy Campbell quiet-voiced but strong-willed. It is nice to see the hard-working actor, most memorably seen on “The Killing,” with a lead. (Interestingly, he replaced Jason Patric during filming due to “creative differences.”) But it is Angus Macfadyen who dominates every scene in which he appears as the slavery-and Confederate-damning Jee Hagadorn. It is a performance of much huffing and puffing, but it is also very believable, even amidst the histrionics. Ironically, however, Macfadyen’s finest moment is a quiet one in which he utters a single devastating sentence to the son that has let him down by steering clear of military service. Meanwhile, Peter Fonda makes a couple of rather clunky appearances; the scenes are fine, but feel a bit engineered. (A newspaper is folded, and reveals…PETER FONDA!)
It is a statement of fact that those who consider themselves Civil War or history buffs will be much more forgiving of “Copperhead” than those who are not, and I see nothing wrong with that. For this audience, Ron Maxwell’s film will prove entertaining and though-provoking, at the very least. For the rest, it is unlikely to provide much dramatic sustenance. But that’s too bad, because even though “Copperhead” is nowhere near a great film, it is often a good one, a drama with real ideas about patriotism and dissent in times of conflict. It is a worthy entry in our growing list of Civil War cinema, and despite its flaws, it does not deserve to be ignored. [B-]