If the name Ronald F. Maxwell isn’t familiar, it’s probably because his two most notable films, the Civil War-set behemoths Gettysburg (93) and Gods and Generals (03), are more closely associated in the popular imagination with mogul and famously rich Civil War enthusiast Ted Turner, who put up most of the money for both passion projects (and made cameos). Maxwell’s name even sounds like that of some author of alternate history Civil War novels, and the subject does seem to be his passionate niche as much as it is Turner’s. His trajectory as the war’s historical fiction chronicler of record was somewhat derailed by the massive financial and critical failure of Gods ($56 million budget, $13 million box office). That Stonewall Jackson–focused epic, nearly six hours in the director’s cut released on Blu-ray, was based on the novel by Jeff Shaara, son of the author of Pulitzer Prize–winning The Killer Angels, which in turn was Gettysburg’s source.
If a fortune materializes, Maxwell plans to round out a trilogy with another Shaara adaptation, but Copperhead is not that movie. It shares the same war as its subject, and lead Billy Campbell was in the previous films, but in every way its modest scale and talky contemplation almost seem to apologize for the hubris of Gods. “Copperhead” was derisory slang for Northerners who either supported the Southern cause or simply opposed the war, and Maxwell’s film follows a family of them in upstate New York whose fates become fatally tangled with a neighboring abolitionist family.
While the planning, waging, and aftermath of giant battles dominate Gettysburg and Gods, the only fighting here is an Election Day donnybrook in a town square. The violence of war comes up only secondhand, in stories. A soap opera about the war’s divisive effect on a tiny town standing in for the entire Northern “home front,” Copperhead is nearly claustrophobic in its restricted setting (it was shot in a re-created settlement in Canada). The adequate, amber-toned digital look, corny scoring, historically accurate costuming, era-appropriate peopling, and slowly-connect-the-dots storytelling together give the film the competent, stolid feel of a well-made informational video in a museum.
Campbell brings a Sears catalogue stoicism to his role as Abner Beech, whose resistance to the Union cause renders him and his family anathema in town, despite his value as a farmer. Abner’s son Jeff (Casey Brown), whose full name is Thomas Jefferson Beech, rebels, enlists, and switches his nickname to Tom to remove associations with Jefferson Davis and to please the daughter (Lucy Boynton) of Abner’s more fanatical counterpart neighbor, Jee (Angus Macfadyen). The politically star-crossed affair is Romeo and Juliet by way of The Birth of a Nation.
Abner never wavers from his stubborn copperheadedness, though he softens on his initial disowning of his son—he’s repeatedly shown checking the New York Tribune casualty lists with parental concern. He's also the only well-educated character in the film, and his presence is one of wise, comforting protection. (Not entirely surprisingly, in the recent TV movie Killing Lincoln Campbell plays the same president whom his character here despises.)
Abner’s ideology influences his family’s opinions, but it appears to have wholly won over Maxwell. The film is like a politically less correct alternative to Spielberg’s Lincoln, not merely offering a unique perspective of events but practically endorsing Abner’s pacifism. There's even a handy, pointed contrast to Abner in the wild-eyed cruelty of Jee, who resents his own unenlisted son and whose rabid dogmatism finally threatens the life of his daughter.
The fact that Abner’s position also tacitly rejects emancipation is made palatable by two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right statements like “Of course slavery ain’t right, but…” A maudlin climactic speech tries to have it both ways, too, condemning slavery and war with a pat “love thy neighbor” moral. We’re a long way from the thorny contradictions and compromising rationalities of Tony Kushner’s sophisticated speeches in Lincoln.
Except for the credit-boosting addition of an extraneous blacksmith played by Peter Fonda, Copperhead is faithful to its 1893 source novella by Harold Frederic, a journalist and author best known for the novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. Nobody was crying out for a reverential story of a right-thinking small-town abolitionist father, so it’s no knock that Maxwell neither intended nor delivered such a movie, and focused on a protagonist of a sort you don’t hear much from in historical fiction. That Maxwell went to this obscure source and consecrated this fictional man, whose attractively presented, thoughtfully reasoned views fell on the wrong side of history, corresponds with the general sympathies expressed in his previous work. Those earlier films, evenhandedly fashioned to please the fervid, Civil War reenactment crowd, took pains to be sympathetic or at least aloofly scrupulous in their portrayals of the South. In Copperhead, too, Maxwell’s unfashionable but considered Southern sympathies poke through the overtures made toward objectivity. In Gettysburg, the continuous spectacle of horrible bloodshed—over half a million American men slaughtered in that and other battles—made its own plausible argument for the questionability of the war, which Maxwell seemed to share. Here, the void of violence leaves only the tiresome righteousness of a farm-town father figure to make its dubious argument. As both politics and entertainment, it’s lacking.