The world will little note nor long remember this lush and high-minded but cursory tramp through the Civil War from Steven Spielberg’s production company. A three-hour (at least) subject in a two-hour time slot, overall effort is so reminiscent of George Lucas’ current TV series that one expects to spot Indiana Jones’ grandfather picking up photo tips from Matthew Brady before rushing to somebody’s rescue.
No such luck; instead, we’re given the old separation-of-families saw as producer Jonas McCord’s heavy-handed script examines two such units. Of close-knit West Point classmates Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman), Devin O’Neil (Clive Owen) and George Armstrong Custer (Joshua Lucas), Peyton hot-foots it home to Virginia short of graduation to defend the family property, while the others join Yankee army. Meanwhile, Peyton is engaged to O’Neil’s sister Shannen (Sophie Ward).
So sympathetic to the North is the O’Neils’ father (Niall O’Brien) that he “pisses stars and stripes,” while Devin’s firebrand younger brother Terry (top-billed Christien Anholt) sides with the South. By this point, viewers will need a scorecard and wish the blue and gray uniforms had numbers on the back.
Cast is so jam-packed with un-or vaguely-familiar faces that it’s difficult for anybody to stand out — isn’t that Len Cariou as Shelby’s father, the good Southerner who frees the slaves?
Blessed with an endless supply of cliches to draw from, McCord and director Gregory Hoblit end with shots of corpse-strewn battlefield intercut with birth of slaves’ baby.
There’s nothing particularly wrong about such a Classics Illustrated approach to one of the most significant periods in American history, but it’s probably more suited to a young audience than the 9 p.m. time slot would indicate; kids, on the other hand, would probably be put off by the plethora of characters and relative lack of action.
All that aside, film looks sensational, from locations to Janusz Kaminski’s moody lighting and John Debney’s atmospheric music. Acting is OK, if a bit still throughout; slaves may be the most consistently interesting characters. Script takes unusually even hand — showing Yankees’ warts (notably, result of Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus) as well as Rebs’.