MOVIE REVIEW: “Free State of Jones”

Free State of Jones (IM Global, STX Entertainment, Huayi Brothers Media, 2016)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Kerri Russell

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Film Rating: R for Brutal Battle Scenes and Disturbing Graphic Images



By October of 1862, the American Civil War was entering a new phase. With Confederates being pushed back from Maryland and Kentucky, Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those slaves in the states in rebellion. In the South, the Confederacy begins conscripting men into the army (A similar practice also goes on in the north, in the name of the “draft”). However, this conscription also comes with the “20 Negro Law,” meaning that those families with 20 or more slaves could be exempt from it. This policy would lead to great turmoil in the south. In particular, the state of Mississippi would see one of their own, a deserted soldier named Newton Knight, lead a band of former slaves and white subsistence farmers and other deserters against the Confederacy. For a time, Knight and his band successfully drive Confederate forces out of Jones County, and other counties, in Mississippi. With no aid from either Confederate or Union armies, they set up their own “country,” calling it the Free State of Jones County. The subject of Knight and his guerrilla band are the subject of the film Free State of Jones, a dramatic film from director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville).

The film begins in October, 1862, as we see Confederate and Union forces engaged in brutal fighting near Corinth, Mississippi. Here, we are introduced to Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a soldier who’s helping bring wounded from the battlefield back to the hospital camps. When his nephew arrives after being conscripted, he does his best to keep him safe. Sadly, during trench fighting, his nephew is shot, and his attempts to get him aide at the hospital fails, ultimately leading to his death. Despondent, Knight decides to return the body back to his home, ultimately becoming a deserter. While at home, he sees the affects of the war on the people there, as the Confederate Army takes food and livestock from local farmers, leaving them with little to subsist from. Knight ultimately joins a band of freed slaves, who are soon joined by more deserters and other white farmers, who ultimately join together to fight against the Confederacy, and drive them from Jones county. We then follow Knight and his friends through the post-war period, as Reconstruction threatens to return men and women of color back into slaves, and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan send fear to all who oppose them.

Whether you view Knight and his band as heroes, fighting an oppressive system in the name of freedom, or as villains enacting brutal attacks against the government they took an oath to, there is no denying that their story is a very dramatic one, and ripe for a big-screen offering. The ideas that it espouses (Freedom and liberty, the right to own your own land, and keep what you grow for yourself, and sacrifice) are themes that are still important to this day. Knight truly believed what he fought for, and the men and women who followed him were willing to fight and die for those same ideals, even if they didn’t always agree with Knight.

It’s just a shame that this little-known story from the American Civil War couldn’t have been presented in a better film. While it is far from a horrible film, it is a disappointing one for certain. A lot of the weakness boils down to the screenplay for the film. While the film covers over fourteen years of time, it does so in a way that is downright dull at times. The filmmakers chose to devote most of the film’s screen time in the first hour to the buildup to the events leading to the creation of the Free State. While this does give us time to get to know Knight, the people he would come to lead, and how the situation affects them, it spends a little too long getting there. It is just a series of meetings between people, discussions and speeches about how things are, and what should be done about it, and long glances and walks from place to place.

When events do finally move toward driving Confederates out of Jones County, it is done, and over very quickly. What should’ve been the main focus of the film takes up just twenty or so minutes of screen time. The last forty minutes or so of the film deals with Reconstruction, and how Knight attempted to fight the return of slavery in, albeit by another name, and getting men of color the right to vote. While this part of the story is compelling, it feels by this point that the filmmakers are just wanting to tell as much of Knight’s story as possible in one film. This ends up hurting the film, as it starts to feel like too much on the plate.

What’s more, the filmmakers also chose to include a subplot with one of Knight’s descendants in 1947. The subplot tells of Davis Knight and his getting married. However, because Davis was the great-great-grandson of Knight and his wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman, that made him 1/8 black, and therefore, a black person not eligible to marry a white in Mississippi at that time. He was sent to prison for this “crime,” but the conviction was eventually overturned. While it is also a compelling and powerful story, it deserves to be told in its own film, and not in a film whose focus was on a completely different story altogether.

And therein lies the central problem of Free State of Jones. At the end of the day, the film attempts to tell three different stories in its 139-minute running time, making it a film with very little focus. For those who might not be familiar with the era and its people, this might make the film difficult to follow. And despite these different stories, the story drags from time to time. It definitely feels more like something that should’ve been a History Channel docudrama, with historian interview thrown in (Replacing the film’s use of text titles to explain events).

However, despite these issues, there is much to admire in the film. It’s beautifully-shot, and has a very powerful cast. McConaughey does a fantastic job as Newton Knight, bringing this character to life with a realism that does make you admire what he stood for. Mbatha-Raw gives a very effective performance as Rachel, the slave and healer who eventually becomes Knight’s wife, and joins him in his quest. Mahershala Ali, as the runaway slave Moses, gives the film’s most subtle performance, understating his character’s desire to be treated as a man despite the color of his skin.

In probably the film’s most powerful moment, when Knight asks Moses why he wants to be free, he gives the film’s greatest sentiment: “Because you cannot own a child of God.” It is this scene, and the interaction between the characters, that really makes Free State of Jones come alive. We understand these people, and care for them. So, when brutal acts come to them, we are saddened and angered by their loss.

The few action scenes are well-shot and edited, giving the film a visceral impact. The recreation of the fighting around Corinth, is well-staged, exciting, and brutal. There are a few historical quibbles (Formations seem to not be consistent between shots, in addition to uniforms and equipment looking a little inaccurate), but it conveys the brutality of war, and its impact on the individual.

However, despite all the good it has going for it, this is not a film I can fully recommend. While it does have great performances, and some great technical merits in how it’s shot, Free State of Jones squanders its opportunity to tell a powerful story by delivering a film that lacks a focused narrative, and is boring at times. Only those with a real interest in the period, and learning more about this story, will find something to appreciate. But even for history buffs like myself, it leaves a lot to be desired. In the end, Free State of Jones is neither a good experience, nor a bad one. It’s just a middling experience.

Overall Grade: 5/10, or C.

BOOK REVIEW: “The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson”

The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the Confederacy’s Greatest Icon (Emerging Civil War Series)

Authors: Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White (With Contribution by Steph Mackowski)

Publication: Savas Beatie Publishing (El Dorado Hills, California), 2013


It is considered by many to be the moment in the American Civil War that changed everything. On the evening of May 2nd, 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, the “Mighty Stonewall,” was wounded by friendly fire while doing reconnaissance following the greatest success of his career: the Flank Assault at Chancellorsville. The wounded Jackson was taken to a field hospital, where his left arm was amputated. Removed to safety at Guinea Station, his wounds appeared to be healing. But alas, pneumonia set in, and the General died eight days after he was shot. The events that transpired in the days before, and the years after, “Stonewall” Jackson’s death, are covered in the latest edition of the Emerging Civil War Series. Written by historians Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson: The Mortal Wounding of the South’s Greatest Icon, tells the story of this pivotal event in American history.

Mackowski and White have done thorough research into this story, presenting the wounding of Jackson, the dangerous journey to get him to a field hospital, the surgery, the removal to Guinea Station, and his subsequent death, in nearly-minute detail. But what sets this account apart from other tellings of the story is the fact that Mackowski and White are terrific writers. The work actually connects the reader personally to Jackson, making his wounding and subsequent death from pneumonia very emotional. This gives their work an emotional power that is rare for books on Civil War and American History.

But the book does not stop with the death and funeral of the Confederacy’s greatest icon. The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson also covers the curious story of Jackson’s amputated arm, as well as the decline and restoration of the exterior office building of the Chandler House at Guinea Station, where Jackson spent his final days. The efforts to preserve the building now known as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine is told in great detail, and the great writing keeps this part of the story from becoming dull and tedious.

In addition to the powerful main text, the authors have included several pages of appendices that readers will find incredible. From Jackson’s pre-war life in Lexington, Virginia, to memorializing the “Mighty Stonewall” in art, to exploding the greatest “What if…” of the war, the appendices offer readers even more information on Jackson and his life. But perhaps most fascinating and entertaining of all is the section “Stonewall Jackson in Memory,” which delves into the legend of the “lemon myth” that has stayed around Jackson ever since his death. The book also includes suggestions for further reading on the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

As a student of Civil War history, I find The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson to be an invaluable addition to any Civil War library. The authors have written a fascinating and emotional account of the death of the man who was, to many in the South and the North, the greatest General the Confederacy had. The book includes additional information on Jackson, as well as some fantastic period and modern images related to Jackson and his life. If you are a student of this period of American history, or someone wishing to learn more about this tragic period, then this book is definitely a must-read. This book comes highly recommended!

Grade: 9.5/10, or A.

Thoughts on the Trailer for Ron Maxwell’s “Copperhead”

On June 28th, the weekend before the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Ronald F. Maxwell, the acclaimed filmmaker who gave us two of the greatest Civil War epics ever made (1993’s Gettysburg, and the underrated 2003 prequel Gods and Generals), will release the film Copperhead. With this film, Mr. Maxwell returns to the Civil War era with a smaller, more personal film that takes a look at the price of dissent during the nation’s deadliest war. And today, Yahoo! Movies released the first theatrical trailer for the film. I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss the trailer. But before I do, here is the trailer for you to view:

From the very outset, it is clear that this film will be different from any film yet made about the American Civil War. While the war is clearly felt in this small village in New York state, the battlefields and armies are far away from this tranquil town. It is definitely more of a character-driven film. Based on the trailer, the film has more of an intimate feel to it, unlike Mr. Maxwell’s previous Civil War films, which were epic in their scope. For the most part, the cast for the film looks very authentic, and the setting of the film is very idyllic, though the fraction between the neighbors is certain to become a bloodbath as well.

There are two small quibbles I have. One is with the trailer, and one is about the film itself. Although powerful, the trailer does seem to have an abrupt ending to it. Just as it seems to continue to build up to an exciting climax, it ends just like that. As for the film itself, it does appear that Lucy Boynton, the British actress who is portraying Esther Hagadorn in the film, seems to have a somewhat difficult time with an American accent. During a couple of moments, she seems to slip into her natural British dialect. However, I am aware that this is just a two-minute trailer, and the clips used might not give the whole picture.

Overall, I am very impressed with the trailer, and it definitely leaves the viewer excited to see the film in its entirety. Once again, it appears Ron Maxwell has created a finely-crafted film that will tell a unique chapter from the story of America during her bloodiest war.

What are your thoughts and opinions on the trailer? I welcome all to comment.

FILM REVIEW: “Killing Lincoln”

Killing Lincoln (National Geographic, Scott Free Productions, 2013)

Starring: Billy Campbell, Jesse Johnson, Geraldine Hughes, Tom Hanks

Running Time: 120 Minutes (With Commercials)

Rating: TV-14 (Violence, Language)


It seems like the film and television projects pertaining to our 16th President continue to roll on. Last year, three films (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Abraham Lincoln versus Zombies, and the critically-acclaimed Steven Spielberg biopic) featuring Honest Abe were made. This year, we can look forward to two more: Saving Lincoln, which looks at Lincoln’s presidency from the eyes of bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and The Green Blade Rises, which looks at the President’s formative years. But outside of Spielberg’s film, possibly the one that has been discussed the most is the NatGeo documentary drama Killing Lincoln, which looks at the events surrounding the assassination of Lincoln, and the manhunt for his killer, acclaimed actor John Wilkes Booth. It is based on the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly, and executive produced by O’Reilly, along with siblings Tony and Ridley Scott, and directed by Adrian Moat.

Now, I have not read O’Reilly’s book about the assassination, so I did not have that to compare to. However, I was a bit worried about the Scott Brothers, and Mr. Moat, being involved in the production. Back in the summer of 2011, the Scotts and Moat gave us the History Channel docudrama Gettysburg, which is one of the most horrendous excuses of a documentary ever produced. However, unlike the previous documentary, Killing Lincoln is actually a fairly good piece of historical docudrama.

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks serves as the host/narrator of the film. He helps guide the viewers through the story. Personally, you can never go wrong with having Tom Hanks involved in a historical production, as evidenced by the four historical miniseries that he executive produced for HBO. His narration is fantastic, and helps move the production along at a fairly steady pace. The only drawback is the Walt Disney mustache he sports (That’s no joke: He’s portraying Mr. Disney in a film that comes out later this year), but this is a small distraction.

As for the cast assembled to portray the historical figures, it’s somewhat hit-and-miss. Billy Campbell, famous for such movies as The Rocketeer, and who will next be seen in Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, portrays Abraham Lincoln. He gives a solid performance, but when compared to other portrayals, his Lincoln seems a bit dull, and lacking some of the charisma that the President had. Still, his performance is not terrible, just not great. Geraldine Hughes, best-known for portraying Sylvester Stallone’s sort-of love interest in Rocky Balboa, gives a good performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. The scenes where she weeps at the sight of her dying husband are very touching, and Ms. Hughes makes you believe that she is in agony.

Probably the most disappointing performance in the piece comes from Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth. Although the documentary points out that Booth was not a madman, Johnson’s performance comes off as exactly that. His Booth is theatrical throughout the piece, making you believe he was indeed insane, despite what the narration says. For me, it was just too difficult to believe he wasn’t a madman based on Johnson’s portrayal. Chris Conner’s portrayal in Gods and Generals is far more accurate, and more humanistic. The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.

As for the historical accuracy, the film succeeds overall. A few moments of poetic license are taken, especially during the assassination scene (Which is, despite the license, done very well). However, one must realize that this is a docudrama, and not a straight-up documentary. And unlike the Gettysburg documentary, the poetic license is not overdone. From a technical standpoint, the film looks and sounds amazing. Done on a budget of $2 Million, it certainly has the look of a big-budget production from Hollywood, and helps give it a very cinematic feel. The storytelling is somewhat slow at times, but is made up for by the solid casting, and Hanks’ narration.

Overall, Killing Lincoln is a flawed, but solid, docudrama looking at the assassination of President Lincoln, and the manhunt to find his killer. If you have an interest in Abraham Lincoln, and this period of American history, then you will enjoy the film. However, those uninterested in the subject will probably not find much to enjoy in this docudrama.

Grade: 7.5/10, or B

CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST: Part One – Primary Documents

The first part in a series of articles discussing the personal connections we have to the people, places and events of the Civil War era.

Although the events of the American Civil War are a century-and-a-half behind us, there are still many things that connect us to those people, places and events that shaped this important part of American history. One of the most important are what have been termed “Primary Documents” by modern scholars. From diaries and journals, to letters home, to telegrams and after-action reports, to discharge and parole papers, these are our most important, and most intimate, connection to the people who lived at this time. It is by reading these primary documents that we can get a sense of who these people were, what they were fighting for, and how combat affected them mentally, physically and spiritually.

I am currently in the middle of working on my Master’s Thesis, the final research project for Graduate School. I am focusing my research on two units that fought in the American Civil War. One of those units is the Confederate 49th North Carolina Troops. As part of the research, I have to go through many primary documents pertaining to the unit. Not only has this been very good for my research project, but it has also been an eye-opening look into the lives of the men who fought in the unit. Much of what I have found has been truly memorable, and also heartbreaking.

In all the research that I have done so far, three moments stand out for me. The first was on my first research trip in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, back at the end of November this past year, to go through the Southern Historical Collections. I went through several documents, but probably the most fascinating that day was the diary of Captain Henry A. Chambers, who served in Company B of the 49th North Carolina, which he kept between June 1863, and April 1865. The diary gives many detailed accounts of the battles the unit fought in during that time, as well as his feelings about the outcomes of those conflicts. His description of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, is truly memorable for its great detail, and its heartbreaking description of the loss of men (The full transcript of his diaries, including the one kept 1863-65, can be found here).

The second moment came the following day, as I was going through the special collections at Duke University in Durham, NC. I was going through the papers of John Lane Stuart, who fought in Company D of the 49th NC. He wrote several letters to his family at home. But while going through the packet of documents, I stumbled across two small slips of paper. Both were the parole papers given to him after the war had ended, and he had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States. These are important, because there are apparently only a few of these parole slips known to exist. What is also interesting to point out is that, in the first one given to him in August of 1865, the man writing the document misspelled his last name. On the document, the man filling out the form spelled it “Steward.” But when Private Stuart affixed his signature to the document, he spelled it the correct way. This is fascinating, and a bit humorous as well. The other one, which is a “copy” of the oath given to him a month later, the name is misspelled again, this time as “Stewart.” These are unique documents to see, and to find them was a real treasure.

The last moment, and probably the most emotional one, was going back to UNC-Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago to do more research for the project. This day, I went through the Phifer Family Papers, and some of what I found truly moved me. One of the soldiers who’s letters I went through was Ed Phifer, who went on to be a Lieutenant in the 49th NC. He wrote several letters home, each time wishing members of his family well. As I did a quick look through other letters, I came across a slip of paper folded in two, covering a document that was a little more brittle than the other documents I looked through that day. As I opened it to investigate, I discovered it was the funeral notice for Lieutenant Phifer, who died after suffering wounds. I went back, looking through other documents, and discovered a telegram sent on July 18th, 1864 from Petersburg by his brother to his family notifying them of his death. It was very heart-wrenching to realize that the man whose letters I was going through was one of the men who did not return home from the war. Although I did not know him personally, I did begin to well up a little bit for him and his family, knowing that he gave his life for his home and family, and that his loved ones would not see him again in this life.

To go through these primary documents from the war is to connect personally with the men and women of that time period. To see how they lived through America’s darkest days. To read for yourself what they fought and died for. And most important of all, to feel a personal connection to the events of the American Civil War, a feeling that historical books cannot give you. To me, these documents are just as important a connection as the battlefields and structures of the period that are preserved. For it is through these letters, diaries, journals, and other items that the men themselves are given life again. I encourage everybody to take a day or two to visit the places that hold these types of documents, to see for yourselves the private collections of the men and women who shaped the most important time in our nation’s history.

Happy New Year from CIVIL WAR DIARY!

2012 seems to have flown by. Hard to believe that we’re about to begin 2013 already. The year has been one of the more slower years for the blog, but business picked up in the last four months, with an article on the Battle of Antietam, a look at my trip to the Antietam battlefield, and a review of Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated film, Lincoln. With these articles, the blog achieved its highest viewership numbers ever, and I am grateful to everybody for spreading the word on this blog.

2013 promises to be an exciting year. Here is a taste of what is to come:

-The Legacy and Controversies of the Emancipation Proclamation;

-Articles covering major battles of the war, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and others;

-Reviews of previous and upcoming film and television releases connected to the American Civil War;

-Interviews with historians and filmmakers;

-Visits to Civil War battlefields and historic sites;

-And much, much more!

Cannot wait to start the new year. Here’s to hoping all of you have a safe and happy 2013! God bless you all!

Movie Review: “Lincoln”

Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures, Dreamworks SKG, 20th Century Fox, 2012)

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones

Running Time: 149 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for an Intense Scene of War Violence, Some Images of Carnage and Brief Strong Language

When I first heard several years ago that Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about Abraham Lincoln, I got very excited. One of the greatest film directors of our time tackling a story of one of the greatest Presidents in American history is just exciting to think about. Say what you will about Spielberg’s political beliefs, but his historical films, from Shindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, are some of the best in the genre. Now, over a decade after his decision to do a film about the Great Emancipator, Spielberg’s Lincoln finally hit the cinemas nationwide this past Friday. This has certainly become one of the more scrutinized films by historians and modern filmmakers. So, here I am to give my thoughts on this remarkable film.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “Lincoln.”

The Cast

For this film, Spielberg has assembled one of the greatest all-star casts ever assembled. But this movie truly belongs to it’s leading man: Daniel Day-Lewis. As I expected before seeing the film, Mr. Day-Lewis gives us what will surely be the definitive screen depiction of our 16th President. As the man has a penchant for doing, he delves into the role with a passion never seen by any actor who has donned the top hat. He truly shows the torment of the man who was overseeing the bloodiest war in American history, while also dealing with a wife whom he loves, though she does drive him angry at times, and the loss of his son Willie years ago. But he also shows Lincoln was a fiercely political animal, as he works to get the necessary votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and with bringing an end to the war. But most of all, Lincoln shows the humorous nature of the man, telling yarns and jokes to help get his points across. In all three areas, Day-Lewis excels. If he doesn’t at least get a nomination come Oscar time, then something is definitely wrong with affairs in Hollywood.

Another actor who should be considered for an Oscar is Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the Radical Republicans, and a strong voice for abolition in the U.S. House of Representatives. As usual, Jones gives a strong, humorous performance as a man who is not above insulting his Democratic rivals in the House to bring his point across to the people. He also shows that, despite taking a strong stance against slavery, he is willing to calm his rhetoric to get the amendment passed. This is definitely some of Mr. Jones’ finest work, and deserves some recognition come Oscar time.

Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed by Ms. Field in the role. She wasn’t bad. She just wasn’t as good as I thought she’d be. But she does manage to get some laughs, as well as some emotional intensity. It is possible that, had she had more screen time, her performance would have been more fleshed out. But still, she does a solid job in the role.

There are several notable minor roles that should be mentioned. James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, one of the three men hired by the Lincoln administration to “bribe” several key Democrats to vote in favor of the amendment. He is a very funny character, and Spader does good in the role. Also turning in fine performances are Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, a Democrat who stands against Emancipation; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, the Postmaster General who calls for Lincoln to attempt to bring the war to a peaceful end; David Strathairn as William Seward, Secretary of State, and Lincoln’s closest friend in the cabinet; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, and a man who wants more than anything to do his part by joining the army, and; Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Although a very bit role, his performance comes off as very authentic, and he really gives you a good impression of what Grant was like in his short time in the role. The rest of the supporting cast truly does a commendable job in bringing this story to life.

The Script

Tony Kushner’s script covers a very short amount of time in Lincoln’s life, from January to April of 1865, the closing months of the war. But in choosing to focus on this short amount of time, we get to see two of the most important moments in American history: the final abolition of slavery, and the ending of the American Civil War. Here, we get to see Lincoln as a husband, a father, a politician, and as a human being, and how his involvement in affairs brought about great changes in our country. The script also provides Spielberg with his most character-driven piece to date. While the script does occasionally drag in places, it provides a thorough and emotional look at the events depicted in this film.

Weak Points

To me, there were only three weaknesses in the film. First and second, as already mentioned, are Sally Field’s slightly disappointing turn as Mary Todd Lincoln, and the tendency of the film to drag at times. But these are not a major problems with the film. The third weakness is in the choice of actor to portray Robert E. Lee in the brief depiction of the surrender at Appomattox. While the scene itself is depicted fairly accurately, the fact that they chose to cast a man who, although he looks like Lee in the face, is rather chunky to play the frail, skinny commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is somewhat distracting from the emotional impact of the scene. But again, this is a minor quibble in an overall moving film.

The End (Spoiler Alert!)

As my friend Greg Caggiano said in his review of the film, the way Spielberg and Kushner chose to end the film is very moving, and different from how it is generally portrayed. Instead of seeing Lincoln at the theater, we see him prepare to leave the White House to go to the theater. And here, Lincoln gives a line that is meant to be off the cuff, but turns out being prophetic: “I have to go, but I wish I could stay.” Then, we see Lincoln walking down a corridor, as one of his help looks on. We then cut to Tad Lincoln, the President’s son, watching a performance of “Aladdin,” which is interrupted by news that the President has been shot. We then go to the Petersen House, where Lincoln dies. But the film does not end there. It ends with Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address. This is probably the most powerful scene in the film, as Mr. Day-Lewis gives a powerful rendition of what I believe is Lincoln’s greatest speech. The way Spielberg chose to end his cinematic story truly moved me to tears, and proved to be a powerful way to end the film.

Final Thoughts

Lincoln is definitely one of the greatest films made about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. From the amazing performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and an all-star cast, a powerfully-written script, to a moving finale, this is definitely the defining portrait of the man considered by many to be our Greatest President. If you have an interest in American history, or enjoy serious, thought-provoking drama, then Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Grade: 9 out of 10.

The 16th President on Film: Some of the Best Screen Portrayals of Abraham Lincoln

Over the next two years, two high-profile film and television projects will be released featuring America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. This December, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a biopic on Lincoln set in the last three months of his Presidency, will feature Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Last of the Mohicans) as Lincoln. This will be followed in 2013 by the highly-anticipated miniseries “To Appomattox,” which will feature acclaimed actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gods and Generals, Gettysburg, TV’s “Terra Nova”) as the President (There’s also Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I flat out refuse to talk about on this blog). These two projects will add to the list of nearly 300 film and television portrayals of the man labeled our greatest President. But of all these different portrayals, which of these truly stand out as the best of the bunch? With this article, I shall look at my five favorite portrayals of Lincoln on film (so far). They are in sequential order, mostly going by year of release.

1. Henry Fonda, (Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939)

Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln"

1939 is considered a banner year for Hollywood, with classic films such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz among the greatest films released that year. John Ford, considered by many to be the greatest of Western film directors, released two major films that year: Stagecoach (Which gave birth to the Western as we know it) and Young Mr. Lincoln. A fictionalized account of Lincoln’s days as a prairie lawyer, the film features a young Henry Fonda in one of his early screen roles. Fonda turns in a truly amazing performance as Lincoln, capturing the tenderness and humor that Lincoln is known for, while also showing how he would go on to be a shrewd lawyer and politician. Although not as well known as other films of its day, this truly captures the spirit of Lincoln in his formative years in Illinois.

2. Hal Holbrook (Sandburg’s Lincoln, 1974; North and South, 1985; North and South, Book II, 1986)

Hal Holbrook in "North and South"

Hal Holbrook is one of the few actors who has portrayed Lincoln on film more than once. He first donned the stovepipe hat and beard for what has been called the first televised miniseries, Sandburg’s Lincoln, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Carl Sandburg. Holbrook truly did a magnificent job in the role, showing mostly Lincoln’s penchant for humor, while also showing his softer and political sides when needed. For his performance, Holbrook would win an Emmy Award for Best Actor. Eleven years after Lincoln, he would reprise the role for the adaptation of John Jakes’ bestselling novels North and South and Love and War, where he delivers a more tender portrayal of Lincoln during his time in office. Holbrook is also the only previous actor to portray Lincoln who will star in Spielberg’s Lincoln film, as Francis Preston Blair.

3. Gregory Peck (The Blue and the Gray, 1982)

Gregory Peck in "The Blue and the Gray"

Gregory Peck, star of such classic films as Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone, portrayed Lincoln for this 1982 miniseries. Although a relatively minor role in the series, Peck once again shines out above the rest of the cast, giving a truly memorable performance as Lincoln (His recitation of the Gettysburg Address is truly memorable). Peck felt himself too old to portray the character, but that did not stop him from turning in a fantastic performance.

4. Sam Waterston (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, 1988; The Civil War, 1990)

Sam Waterston in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln"

Like Hal Holbrook, Sam Waterston (“Law and Order”) would portray Lincoln more than once. In 1988, he starred in the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, which looked at the more political side of our 16th President. In my opinion, Waterston’s portrayal in this miniseries is the definitive Lincoln we have on film. Although he does show his humorous side, he also shows that Lincoln was a shrewd and powerful politician, able to handle his cabinet and others with great effectiveness. Waterston earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal. But he is best remembered for giving voice to Abraham Lincoln in Ken Burns’ classic documentary, The Civil War, which garnered tremendous critical acclaim, and high ratings for PBS. Waterston’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address is just one of the highlights in what is truly a remarkable document of our nation at war.

5. Fritz Klein (No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle that Rescued Washington, 2006)

Fritz Klein as Lincoln

A powerful but little-known film, No Retreat from Destiny depicts the events of July, 1864, when Jubal Early’s Confederate force nearly took Washington City, but a delaying action at Monocacy allowed time for Federal troops to defend the capital from invasion. The film features Fritz Klein, a well-known Lincoln actor, as the President, showing the resolve to win the war to the end, and refusing to leave the capital, despite the threat of Confederate invasion. Klein’s portrayal is subdued, but also shows the talent of a man who knows Lincoln inside and out, and gives the film’s best performance. If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to do so. Despite its miniscule $500,000 budget (Which shows at times), the performances and thrilling battle footage more than make up for it.

So, there are my picks for the five best portrayals of Abraham Lincoln on film as of right now. When Spielberg’s film and “To Appomattox” hit the airwaves, this list might change a bit. But, I welcome others to share their opinions on Lincoln portrayals.

Movie Review: “The Conspirator”

The Conspirator (The American Film Company, 2011).

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for Some Violent Content

“In times of war, the law falls silent.”-Cicero

Every American is familiar with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by famed actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth that took place on April 14th, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. But few Americans are familiar with the events that transpired afterward. The assassination was part of a conspiracy to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward, with only the Lincoln part of it succeeding. Following the assassination, Booth was hunted down and killed, and the Federal Government rounded up those who were considered part of the conspiracy. Among those arrested was Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where Booth and his conspirators met to plan the abduction of Lincoln, and whose son was Booth’s right hand. The military trial of Surratt and other members of Booth’s party is the subject of Director Robert Redford’s latest film The Conspirator, the premiere project of the American Film Company, whose purpose is to create films based on actual stories from American history.

Redford is no stranger to films with dealing with political commentary (All the President’s Men, Lions for Lambs), and The Conspirator is no exception. The film follows Frederick Aiken, a Union war hero who is given the thankless task of defending Mary Surratt against a military tribunal which has already made up its mind on the verdict for Surratt, a known southern sympathizer and devout Catholic. Although he questions whether or not she is truly guilty or innocent of the crime, he cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the War Department will do anything it can to make sure she is found guilty, and tries everything he can to make sure she is given fair treatment.

The film presents a powerful argument on the Constitutionality of civilians being tried in military tribunals. Although most of those tried were indeed guilty of the crime of conspiring to assassinate Lincoln, Johnson and Seward, these men should have been tried in a civilian court, with a jury of their peers, and not a group of officers charged not with issuing justice, but enacting what was nothing more than Government-sponsored revenge. And when things do not go according to plan, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, presses to make sure that they do. The outcome of this trial would have great ramifications on the judicial system, and lead to laws being passed that would guarantee that travesties such as this would not happen in the United States again.

As for the movie itself, it is fantastically done. The performances in this movie are dynamic overall. James McAvoy plays Aiken, and gives a thoughtful and riveting performance as Surratt’s attorney. Robin Wright gives a warm and tender portrayal of Mary Surratt, making you feel very sympathetic to the character, while also realizing she may not be telling the whole truth. Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meany and Tom Wilkinson give terrific performances as well. But the finest performance in The Conspirator belongs to Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Stanton. He gives a subdued performance, but behind his eyes can be seen a man who wants revenge for what has happened. You cannot help but despise the man after seeing this, and the characterization of the man as presented in the film is spot on to what history has to say about him. Aside from a rather uncomfortable performance by Alexis Bledel as Aiken’s love interest, the rest of the cast is solid.

While James Solomon’s script tends to drag from time to time, the courtroom scenes, terrific performances and fantastic direction make up for a lot. There is no denying that Robert Redford is a master director, and when given a story as good as this one, he gives his all into telling it as best he can. Despite a few moments of poetic license, this is definitely one of the more historically accurate films to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. The attention to detail, from costumes and props, to historic structures and scenery, is startling to behold. This first outing from the American Film Company bodes well for that company’s future.

In closing, I highly recommend The Conspirator to those who love history, as well as those who enjoy serious films. It features terrific performances, a fine story, and fantastic direction from Oscar-winner Robert Redford. The film also has much to say about Constitutional rights, and how the impact of this trial would lead to ramifications in the judicial system that are still with us today.

Movie Grade: A-

Movie Review: “Gods and Generals: Extended Director’s Cut”

GODS AND GENERALS: Extended Director’s Cut (Ted Turner Pictures, 2011).

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Mira Sorvino, Chris Conner

Running Time: 280 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for Sustained Battle Sequences and Some Disturbing Images

Gods and Generals, Ronald F. Maxwell’s prequel to the critically acclaimed Gettysburg, was released in February of 2003, and met with a lukewarm critical reception, and became a failure at the box office. Many critiqued the religious overtones of the film, while some called it pro-Confederate. As someone who has loved the film since first seeing it, there are two complaints I had about it. One, the story was a little imbalanced at times editing wise. And two, the film did not seem accessible to modern movie viewers. Nevertheless, the film did a fantastic job of bringing to life the people, places and events of the American Civil War from 1861-1863.

In 2011, after being anticipated for over eight years, Ron Maxwell’s Extended Director’s Cut of the film was released on Blu-ray. A full hours worth of footage was added, bringing the total length of the film to four-hours, forty minutes. Big questions would be answered by the new version of the film. What changes would be made to the overall feel of the film? Would this version of the film be more accessible to those unfamiliar with the Civil War and its people? And finally, what scenes would be added to the film?

I’ll begin by saying this: If Gods and Generals was not the definitive Civil War epic when released in 2003, it sure as hell is now! Ron Maxwell’s full vision for the movie is a brilliantly-realized portrait of a country at war with itself, and how it affected the lives of the men who fought it, the families who lived through it, and shaped the views of one of the men who would fire the most devastating shot of the war at its conclusion. The film itself is divided into five  fifty to sixty-minute parts (Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Moss Neck, and Chancellorsville), which allows for the viewer to view each segment as if watching a miniseries (Band of Brothers and The Pacific come to mind). But as Ron Maxwell says in his introduction, if you’re a huge Civil War Buff, you’re likely to watch all five parts in one sitting (Which I sort of did). Finally, the full-length cut not only gives the film a proper editorial and story balance that progresses most evenly, but also gives the film a more epic scope. The film is now very Shakespearean in tone, giving it the classical feel that Ron Maxwell intended.

For those familiar with the theatrical cut of the film, I will go over what has been added. But first, I will briefly mention that two moments from the original version have been removed entirely. The first is Jackson’s prayer before First Manassas. I loved the scene in the theatrical cut, but I will be honest, with its removal, there is no break in between the arrival of Jackson at Manassas Junction and the battle itself. We go right into it, and this actually makes the battle scene more exciting. The second is some dialogue in the Beale house, where Martha, the Beale’s slave, is talking to Hancock. Her quote from Esther is removed, but this doesn’t affect the scene all that much.

Now, here is what has been added to the film:

John Wilkes Booth

One of the major additions to the film is a subplot with John Wilkes Booth, played by Chris Conner, who features in five scenes throughout the narrative. Conner plays the character effectively, and we see Booth how he really was before his hatred of Lincoln turned him into an assassin: a passionate man torn between serving the Confederacy, and his life as one of America’s most formidable actors. But the Booth character is not just thrown in just to have him in there. The character is actually used to propel the dramatic effect of the film, and this is done effectively.

One of the Booth scenes comes in after Antietam (More on that in a moment). Historically, Booth was on stage in Chicago performing Hamlet on the evening of September 17th, 1862, the evening after the bloodiest single day in American History. In the scene, Booth is on stage giving the “my thoughts be bloody” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s masterwork, with the line that really fits what has transpired: “While’s to my shame, I see the imminent death of 20,000 men That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot , Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain?” A powerful line from Hamlet used to describe what has happened. This is very effectively done.

Toward the end of the film, Booth and several actors are giving a performance of Julius Caesar in Washington, with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his wife Fanny in the audience. Afterward, Chamberlain and Fanny talk with the actors, including Booth and Henry Harrison, the man who became a Confederate spy, as seen in Gettysburg. Fanny Chamberlain asks Booth if he considers Brutus a hero or a villain, and after a little interlude from Harrison, Booth states one of the film’s most powerful lines: “It is for the audience to decide who is hero, and who is villain. We only play the parts allotted to us.” This is not just a statement about the characters in Julius Caesar, but also of all the characters featured in the film itself. All the characters, both North and South, are shown as they were, in their full humanity. It is up to the audience to decide who in the film the heroes are, and who are villains, if that can be done. All the characters in the film do is what their hearts and duty call them to do, or as Booth says, play the parts allotted to them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Booth scenes in the film. Conner does a fantastic job of humanizing the character, and not creating a one-dimensional stereotype of Booth, which is very easy to do. We see him in the beginnings of his transformation into the assassin, but since that is two years away, he is a man of passion, who enjoys presenting Shakespeare to the masses. And in the scenes, we get to see Harrison, one of the best characters from Gettysburg, on screen again, while also seeing a good, though brief, appearance of Abraham Lincoln, played warmly by Christian Kaufmann.

Additional Camp Life Scenes

There are several scenes which add a lot of dimension, and character moments, to the film. Most of these scenes involve soldier camp life. One scene in particular that is fascinating to see is between Antietam and Fredericksburg, as Jackson and his staff are relaxing after a campaign. Here, Jackson receives a new uniform coat as a gift from General Stuart, and presented to him by Heros von Borke, a very animated figure played very well. As Jackson tires the coat on in front of his men, we hear the rebel yell come out of nowhere in the background, and continue for several moments. It is an eerie and powerful moment, with Jackson commenting on how that is some of the sweetest music he’d ever heard.

The introduction to the 20th Maine is also extended. We see more of Adelbert Ames, as he explains the need for discipline in the ranks, and instructs men how to load in nine times, which Chamberlain’s brother Tom does poorly at first. The whole scene feels very complete with the added footage. Ames is more of a unique character in the film, and as a Civil War reenactor and historian, we see how difficult it is to do things such as loading a rifle.

One of the most unique scenes added though involved Jackson purchasing Little Sorrel, the horse he will ride for the rest of the war, before Manassas in 1861. He originally intends to purchase the sorrel for his wife, but preferring his gait and temper, decides to keep him for himself. Although it has nothing to do with battles and waging war, it helps to humanize the character of Jackson as a man who loves to ride. And in a scene very reminiscent of John Ford westerns, we see Jackson riding the sorrel across the hills of Northern Virginia, with powerful music by John Frizzel and Randy Edleman playng along.

The Battle of Antietam

Perhaps the greatest addition to the film is, of course, the entire sequence involving the Battle of Antietam itself. From the planning of the invasion of Maryland, to the battle itself, this represents probably the best sequence in the film. The battle itself is the shortest in the movie, only about six minutes total. But for that short amount of time, we get what is probably the best and most intense Civil War battle scene ever put on film. The artillery duel is spectacular, and the fighting in the Miller Cornfield is brilliantly recreated. We see troops firing back and forth as fast as they can; whole companies falling as if done on command; stalks of corn being cut in two by bullets; all chaos and death. Those who worked on the film said the Antietam footage was some of the best shot for the film, and from what is shown, that was an understatement.

The one complaint about the scene: the date for the battle is shown as September 19th, 1862, which in reality was two days AFTER the battle was actually fought. It does seem like these films do have mistakes in their subtitles on occasion. But, this is a small complaint, and that mistake can be clarified by historians who show it in their classrooms.

Final Thoughts

It took eight years to do so, but Ron Maxwell’s full vision for Gods and Generals has finally been released, and the wait has definitely been worth it. This is almost a completely different film than what was seen originally. The additional footage not only makes this a complete film, but also manages to do what Ron Maxwell did with Gettysburg, which is create a movie that is not only historically accurate and epic and scope, but makes the story accessible to those who are not students of the American Civil War. Despite the mistake in the date for Antietam, the extended director’s cut of Gods and Generals is far superior to the theatrical cut, and makes this the definitive film on the American Civil War. Despite its length, I have no problems recommending this film to all who enjoy history and serious films!

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give the film a 10, or A+