The horrors inflicted upon Native Americans have traditionally made for wrenching drama, but this loose adaptation of Dee Alexander Brown’s seminal 1971 book is a powerful story limply told, steeped in tired Western cliches and an overbearing score. A few emotional moments emerge almost by default, but a splintered focus and uneven storytelling largely negate them as well as the efforts of the large cast. HBO is using the movie to give “The Sopranos” and “Entourage” a Memorial Day weekend vacation, which, in cable scheduling terms, perhaps represents its own kind of burial.
In hindsight, this Dick Wolf production could be most notable for what amounts to a cameo by potential presidential candidate and “Law & Order” co-star Fred Thompson, who gets to try out the office again onscreen — this time as President Ulysses S. Grant, though his fake beard does most of the acting.
The story itself proves too ambitious for its own good, opening with the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn in 1876 and culminating with the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee almost 15 years later.
In between, the script by Daniel Giat, as directed by Yves Simoneau, labors to locate a point of view, oscillating among Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), a senator whose hope of Indian assimilation through homesteading leads to disastrous consequences; Charles Eastman (“Flags of Our Fathers'” Adam Beach), a Dartmouth-educated Sioux doctor held up as a shining example of Dawes’ plan, who weds a well-intentioned schoolteacher (Anna Paquin); and Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), the Lakota chief who futilely resists white rule before becoming a sideshow attraction.
“The earth belongs to the white man,” Eastman’s father tells him before shipping the boy away. “There is no future outside of his world.”
As with any tale of this period, the movie is punctuated by broken promises, horrible conditions, willful ignorance toward Native American traditions and bursts of grisly violence against innocents, including women and children. There are also modern echoes of the cultural rift between the west and radical Islam in the dialogue, with two cultures that speak at cross-purposes.
Dramatically, though — even tinkering with history to weave the Eastman character into the narrative — “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” proves curiously flat, retracing revisionist looks at this era from “Little Big Man” to TNT’s recent miniseries “Into the West,” another stilted disappointment despite a herd of Emmy nominations. Within that framework, the cast is hamstrung by the archetypal characters, which possess only slightly more dimension than the black-and-white photographs that partition the scenes.
Schellenberg is the one exception, with his deep-set eyes and low rumble of a voice, but other Native-American performers (among them Wes Studi and Eric Schweig) are underutilized. Even the climactic bloodbath proves unaffecting, captured in a distancing flashback without eliciting the horror it should evoke — despite what’s otherwise a meticulously mounted production, lensed in the wilds of Canada.
Each generation, perhaps, needs its own version of these events; still, if that opportunity comes along only sporadically, then “Wounded Knee” is a considerable opportunity wasted.