I had the pleasure of attending the World Premiere of this film in DC on the 10th. I was happy to discover that this film is what I would call I genuine movie going experience: one of those rare occasions where you can forget that you're watching film stock with actors and fancy yourself in the world created. I had my suspicions and fears going in, but can honestly say I wasn't prepared for the film that it turned out to be.
The beginning is simple, with a gorgeous quote about "home" from George Eliot, and the very haunting strains of a song called "Going Home". It then merges into fluttering flags of various regiments historically represented in the film. Quite the opening.
The film does start and stop from scene to scene very quickly, in other words the cuts between scenes are very fast and abrupt. But this didn't bother me in the slightest. It occurred to me while watching that it moves very much like the chapters in the book itself do. I can see how it might be jarring for someone not familiar with the characters or book to find the beginning of the film confusing, but what I found that to be was a simple character set up. The film is enormous, so by systematically and bluntly introducing characters early on, one after another after another, etc etc, it helped introduce the pace of the film. That was something that reminded me of the way the book was laid out. Whether or not it was done on purpose I'm not sure, but I had no problem with it. So, as with many screen adaptations, I think this is the part of the film, and the only part of the film, that would have helped if you had read the book first, since you know what they had left out, and how the story is set up. But that's only the first 20 minutes or so, after that I found that the movie took on it's very own path. They leave out the Hancock/Armistead relationship entirely, they skip a year, they never once mention the Valley Campaign, or Second Manassas, or Antietam, or the Peninsula. Yet despite all this, it still stayed true to the book in many ways thematically, style wise, and character wise, though I'm sure people more familiar with the book than I am will probably say otherwise. I sensed that Maxwell had decided he had to choose the story he was going to tell, and tell it with as many extra storylines that he could fit in there without making the film seem unfinished. And that's exactly what he does. The end result is a symphony of characters, storylines, and themes.
Another aspect that I actually liked, and may lend itself to the fact that I'm a female, is the civilian aspect. The civilian costumes were horrible, and the accents weren't to good, and the acting was a bit over the top, but I liked it. I think it worked very well, and gave the film another layer to it.
I feel the need to mention that this movie is not refined. It's a bit awkward, it's not a Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese movie; something that has no visible seams. It can seem a bit preachy at times, some of the costumes are silly, some of the acting is off, the scene changes sometimes feel like what you just saw didn't really get a chance to soak in, and sometimes the music doesn't really fit what you're seeing onscreen. But, for me at least, it all eventually worked itself out.
The film IS about Jackson. I think they make that very clear from the beginning on, though, as I said, they have many different storylines going. Most of which eventually flow into Jackson's character, or Chamberlain's character. Chamberlain is really the only other person who's life we get a separate glimpse of. Lee is a supporting character in this film. Hancock is introduced slightly. And while watching we are aware by the end of the movie that they go on to other pursuits and challenges later on. As you know, all three of these characters go on to have their own cinematic monologues in `Gettysburg' and we are reminded of this at the end of the film as a note scrolled across the screen saying that G&G was the first in a trilogy of Civil War films, including Gettysburg and Last Full Measure. The idea is a bit akin to a Civil War `Lord of the Rings' style movie trilogy. Jackson on the other hand, has no part in the other stories, so essentially, this is his film, and a lot of that credit goes to Stephen Lang.
I've heard it been said before, but Stephen Lang IS Jackson. I've never seen such a larger than life, real person embodied so intensely and completely. The casting in this film, for this character, was smart. By getting a relatively unknown character actor to fill the part of a historical, enigmatic, giant. Lang, eccentricities, speaking patterns, praying styles, and all grow on you. This man has done an incredible job. Jackson comes across as a sometimes intensely cold, strange, distant man, often afraid to feel, yet can be overcome by his feelings for his wife, and his daughter, a little girl he befriends, his respect for his men, and his love and faith in God. And where this accomplishment is 90% Lang, kudos to Maxwell are in order for setting up, from the beginning of the film key aspects that flesh out Jackson's character. I don't want to give away too much, but we witness an execution of Jackson's men, and by using Sandie Pendleton's character (in a wonderful performance the whole film through by Jeremy London) the filmmakers reflect the contrast between a `normal' reaction and Jackson's complex and cold demeanor. And after one of Jackson's generals is mortally wounded, he softly and gently goes to speak and comfort the man, saying how he will pray for him. As he walks out, one of his staff mentions the chaos of the battle and the ransacking of Fredericksburg, and how do they intend to stop it. Lang chillingly repeats one of Jackson's famous lines, that they would simply kill them all. Lang's immersion in the character is so complete, that even though I was anticipating the line, it was the character saying it. Not an actor saying a line to represent a famous historical figure. To top the scene off, the score plays softly, menacingly, as the camera pans away as the stunned staff watches the general slowly walk away, erect, with his hands behind his back. These are the kinds of details that fill the movie.
To get back to the acting, it's not only Lang who shines. Jeff Daniels returns for a fantastic performance, his monologue about Ceasar's troops as they march off to battle is chilling and perfectly suited for the character (a verbose rhetoric professor), and Daniels' stage acting skills shine through as he recites the verse while watching the members of Irish Brigade charge to their deaths (and we see, as they edited the uphill charge with Daniels' speech). The whole scene is goosebump inducing. In another scene, where Chamberlain gives his brother Tom a lecture and talks about what he's fighting for, he mentions how `every soldier out there is a whole person' with their own lives and people who love them. He's entirely convincing in a scene that could have been performed very badly, and is also one of the only insights into the Union cause. But because of his performance, what he says resonates throughout the rest of the film.
Robert Duvall is just how you'd imagine him to be Lee. You get a great, respected, icon of a dramatic actor, to play `The Marble Man' and half the effect is already done. Duvall acts the rest perfectly, and provides a great support to Jackson's storyline.
Other kudos go to Sean Pratt as a perfect Dr. Maguire, Jeremy London as Sandie Pendleton, Stephen Spacek as James Smith, and Frankie Faison as Jackson's cook, Jim. C. Thomas Howell returns with another endearing turn as Tom Chamberlain, and Kevin Conway as the savvy and wise Sgt. Kilrain. Matt Lescher as Col. Adelburt Ames shines in smaller supporting role. Donzaleigh Abernathy supports a separate storyline all by herself, and does a superb job of it. Kali Rocha is good as Jackson's wife Anna, and fills her role well. Mira Sorvino has exactly two scenes, but she actually makes great use of them, despite a bad Maine accent and a distracting wig.
Now comes down to the theme of the film. This movie does not attempt to smooth over anything, but it's actually lightly political. Every character has a legitimate say as to their lot in life and why they stand where they stand. There is no argument about who was right and who was wrong. There are no apologizing or blaming modern messages coming through. The film belongs to the characters and depending on what character is in focus, that is the point of view you get. Whether it be Chamberlain, or the slaves, or Jackson.
The film, without a substantial use of blood and gore, gets the idea of the tragedy of this war across. There's a scene where Col. Ames is reading off a letter from Lincoln after Fredericksburg, and in the letter it is mentioned that though all the men were noble, the casualties were comparatively moderate, and Buster Kilrain mentions `compared to what?....the French at Waterloo?'. It's an ironic cinematic statement. We've just scene rows of men mowed down, and shots of men scattered about a field. We've seen Chamberlain and his men use bodies as shields, and then this letter comes in. Early on in the film, the camera gently pans and fades in and out of different men in Virginia giving up their work in whatever they are doing, picking up their guns, and rushing off to muster in. It's a beautiful and sad technique, as we realize where these men are coming from. Later on, in the same manner, we see that one of Chamberlain's students, from an earlier scene, asks for permission to go to the rear, and his arm has been blown off. The film also briefly and sporadically follows two soldiers as they go through the battles.
The battles themselves are superbly filmed. They obviously put a lot of thought into these scenes. First Manassas is and average battle scene, but Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville surpass it. The crowning moment of the battle of Fredericksburg is the charge of the Irish Brigade. With ease, it moves swiftly along with extensive tracking shots. Then we see that it's the Rebel Irish, the 24th GA, who are firing at them. As the camera moves from the Irish Brigade's emerald flag, to the Rebels' Irish flag, and we hear remarks from both sides, I could hear the audience start to sniffle, and I teared up. The effect is entirely stirring, startling, and tragic, it sends chills up your spine. What Pickett's charge in the Gettysburg film was, the charge of the Irish Brigade is here (strangely enough, in the film Gettysburg, we have the Union line chant `Fredericksburg' at the retreating Rebels). It's just history, bluntly and plainly filmed. The battle doesn't stop there, though. Chamberlain's men see some action, what with dead bodies as shields, and the Aurora Borealis where all the characters, North and South simply look up, silently, not one word, as the scene softly fades.
The battle of Chancellorsville is just as well choreographed. In the same tracking, graceful style, we see each regiment come out of the woods silently. And, in an amazing shot, just when you wonder how many men there are, we see Jackson emerge, and all to the right of the screen we see thousands of soldiers emerging noiselessly. The rest of this battle is fantastic, with the various shots and angles utilized. This and Fredericksburg are some of the best battle scenes I've ever watched.
The dramatic scenes in the film work very well. There are many, many moments in this movie that are touching. Most of them concerning Jackson, but all of them wonderfully executed. The score by John Frizell and Randy Edelman , for the most part perfectly suits the film. Sometimes it sounds a bit odd or out of place, but it usually reconstitutes itself into the scene for a greater effect. The cinematography by Kees Van Oostrum is stunning. He captures the gorgeous landscape of where this war took place, thus adding, at least for me, a new layer: how could such a horrific war take place in such a beautiful place? Costume design is so, so, sometimes awful, sometimes great; but the production design, interiors and exteriors (save many a scene with tents where tents would not be) is wonderful, and had the look of a museum.
This film is, thematically, dark. It is somber, and it is intense. It's extremely sad, foreboding at times, but it's not depressing or, substance wise, hard to watch. Despite some of the blatant costume mistakes (hey, a lot of the beards looked great!), watching it felt like an immersion into another era and the lives of people not so different than ourselves. It's an epic, colorful, mournful cinematic experience that captures a slice of life. It's not a film for everyone: it's nearly 4 hours long, intensely historical - from the romantic Victorian dialogue to various references to literature and politics, but it has an immense human value to it that I believe anyone can relate to. And despite it's sometime rough hewed edges, it feels completely heartfelt, I think it is an ode to history.
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