“Gods and Generals” is American history transformed into a museum movie, consistently making the flawed human characters at the heart of the Civil War into flawless figures Olympian in their statuesque remoteness. As the intended first part of a Civil War trilogy by producer-writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell, this nearly four-hour section (including intermission) falls chronologically just before Maxwell’s previous “Gettysburg,” which was a far more invigorating epic. Younger auds will retreat en masse, leaving the field to older moviegoers and Civil War buffs able to tolerate the slogging pace, long speeches and extremely noble sentiments for the chance to see some thoroughgoing battle reenactments.
In contrast to “Gettysburg’s” original life as a cable entry, “Gods and Generals” was made for the big screen — with a much higher production standard, exemplified by Kees Van Oostrum’s rich and full-bodied widescreen cinematography. But it also stops still at any moment for lengthy speeches on subjects from devout Christian faith to military strategy that may end up playing better on the small screen. As cinema, new pic feels like one of the longer-playing American films of the modern era.
A 40-minute intro section establishing key players involved in the three central battles of the war’s first years invites comparisons to static early talkies (“Disraeli,” among others), in which thesps were directed to stay still and talk as long as possible. Later, on the fields of battle, action helps pull the movie out of this trap, but even then, the stentorian and humorless approach recalls sword-and-sandals epics of the ’50s and ’60s.
As he did with Michael Shaara’s book, “The Killer Angels,” for “Gettysburg,” Maxwell compresses Shaara’s son Jeff’s tome, but with a crucial alteration: While Jeff neatly balanced his study among four dominant characters — Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock for the North, Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson for the South — Maxwell’s storytelling leans heavily in favor of Jackson (Stephen Lang), a movieish war hero who shifts from fascinating in the early going to boring by the finale. Besides rampant dramatic problems, this also has the dubious effect of delivering a movie that shows far greater sympathy on screen to the Southern cause than to the North.
Rejecting an offer to lead the Northern Army due to his home Virginia sentiments, Lee (Robert Duvall), establishes the pic’s only real thematic focus — that attachment to home and locality trumped patriotismto the Union. Teaching at his beloved Virginia Military Institute, Jackson witnesses the pulling down of the Union flag in favor of the Confederate colors, and with Virginia ratifying secession, these soldiers’ duties are clear.
Even before the underwhelming, 15-minute depiction of the so-called first Bull Run battle, long speeches on faith and loyalties sap the intended dramatic build, and even Jackson’s legendary firmness in the face of Union artillery doesn’t deliver the heroic moment it should be.
It isn’t until nearly the one-hour mark that the North is personalized, in the form of Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), teaching at Maine’s Bowdoin College and discussing with worried wife Fanny (Mira Sorvino) his intentions to enlist. Domestic scene is designed to balance the far more wooden ones involving Jackson and his wife Anna (Kali Rocha), and reps new pic’s wider, but stilted, view of women’s involvement in the war. Soon, Chamberlain is with brother Thomas (C. Thomas Howell) on the training field, in scenes that will have added resonance for viewers of “Gettysburg,” in which the brothers become the heroic center. Joining the Chamberlains is Irish-born Union Sgt. Kilrain (Kevin Conway), a fellow with more color and verve than anyone else on either side.
Centerpiece battle is at Fredericksburg, starting at pic’s 90-minute point and spilling over past intermission. The enactment is remarkably detailed, but only rarely does real human conflict rise to the surface — as when Gen. Hancock (Brian Mallon) contends with Union leadership over its flawed tactics. Buffs should appreciate a brief, five-minute section depicting urban street warfare in the town of Fredericksburg, and a climatic skirmish between Irish units on both sides stirs short peaks of emotion.
By far the best battle staging is kept for the end, as Rebel troops make a brilliant, end-around move on the Union flanks at Chancellorsville. Staging, music and editing finally come vividly alive, as the lurking maneuver designed by Lee and Jackson becomes a military dance of thrilling drama. But pic soon returns to its old ways, as Jackson is felled by “friendly fire,” and ends up lying on his deathbed for an endless 20 minutes.While Lang lacks the tools needed to bring Jackson alive and approachable, thesp is surely hampered in the epic role by script’s characterization of the Southern hero as an intensely religious man. Like the rest of the film, depiction seems willing to sacrifice dramatic common sense for an unplayable technical accuracy, turning this Jackson into someone contempo filmgoers may view as nearly mad, if not laughable.
Remaining cast is equally if less severely constrained, with not a single bad guy in sight to quicken the pulse. Mallon, a fine stage thesp, brings some spit and fire to his Hancock, but he’s given little screen time.
Daniels’ usually loose manner is completely hemmed in here. Notable politicos, playing dress-up, populate the background, surely making for a fun viewing game for Beltway insiders.
Technical re-enactment is aces, especially in the Chancellorsville sequence. Pic’s eye for historic detail is admirable, made clear from opening credits rolling in front of a beautiful montage of several of the war’s military flags. Van Oostrum’s lensing, Richard LaMotte’s costumes and Michael Z. Hanan’s design are craftwork at their best, while music scored by John Frizzell and Randy Edelman is usually overbearing.
Closing credit notes trilogy’s final installment is titled “Last Full Measure.” Credit crawl, given lengthy technical crew, is as uncommonly rapid as previous events are slow. For the record, the second half is intro’d with four minutes of intermission music.