Copperhead (The Film Collective, Swordspoint Productions, 2013)
Starring: Billy Campbell, Angus MacFayden, Francois Arnaud, Josh Cruddas, and Peter Fonda
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Film Rating: PG-13 for an Unsettling Sequence
Filmmaker Ronald F. Maxwell is considered by some to be the foremost cinematic interpreter of the American Civil War. With his last two films, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, Maxwell has given us a glimpse at the heroism and sacrifice of men and women on the battlefields. With these films, he has examined how good, ethical, and moral people, could choose to go to war for what they believed in. Now, with his latest foray into the era, he has chosen to examine the opposite spectrum: how good people could choose not to go to war, or show support for the conflict. The idea of speaking out against war, even when it is not popular to do so, lies at the heart of his latest endeavor: Copperhead.
Based on the novel by Harold Frederic, Copperhead is different from about every other American historical film set in the era of the Civil War. The film is set in a small community in upstate New York, far away from the horrors of war. Yet, the conflict being waged far south is being felt here as well. The central character of the story is Abner Beech (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer, AMC’s “The Killing”), a farmer who is against the war Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans are waging. He, along with his adopted son Jimmy (Josh Cruddas) and an Irish immigrant, are labeled “copperheads” for their stance against the war. His views alienate him from the community, including Jee Hagadorn (Angus MacFayden, Braveheart), a righteous man who supports the war, and abolition, wholeheartedly, and not caring about the thousands of men who are fighting and dying, as long as they achieve victory. As Hagadorn and the community turn against Abner Beech, his son Jeff (Casey Brown) begins a romantic relationship with Hagadorn’s daughter, Esther (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter), and ultimately decides to enlist in the army without the consent of his parents. The bitterness the townsfolk feel against Beech and the copperheads boils over into hatred, setting the stage for a tragic event.
Unlike his other Civil War films, which were epic in scope, and presented some of the major battles of the war, Copperhead is a film that deals with the impact of the war on a small community, and how differences in opinion can lead to violence and hatred. The film looks at the price of dissent in a time of war, when those who speak out against the it are considered traitors. The film delivers its story, and the message of why it is important to live together in peace despite political differences, in a piece that is very well-written and directed, and features a terrific cast. MacFayden nearly steals the show as Hagadorn, a man who is full of intense passion for the cause he believes in. Some will call his performance over-the-top, but he never overdoes it, and makes the character believable. The supporting cast does a terrific job of bringing this 19th-Century community to life.
But the film truly belongs to its lead actor, Billy Campbell. Fresh off portraying Abraham Lincoln in NatGeo’s docudrama Killing Lincoln, Copperhead features Mr. Campbell in a role different from the Great Emancipator. He infuses Abner Beech with a strong sense of right and wrong; a man who stands for what he believes in, even when others say he is wrong. Even if you do not agree with his views, you cannot help but understand why he has come to the conclusion. Beech is a man that is against war, not because it’s the cool thing, but because he believes that war is wrong, and brings nothing but death and destruction in its wake. He does appear stubborn at times, but also has a compassionate side that draws you close to him as a character. I sincerely hope that Mr. Campbell gets some recognition for his amazing performance in this film.
Bill Kauffman’s screenplay is constructed very well. Now, keep in mind, because Copperhead is not a war movie, it is a slower-paced film. But that is actually a great thing in this case. The slower pace gives us a chance to get to know the characters of the film, and understand their views, their hopes, and their beliefs. Any weaknesses in the script are made up for by the brilliant performances from an amazing cast.
One of the things that I always enjoy about Ron Maxwell’s films are the beautiful cinematography, and the music. And in both cases, the film delivers. Maxwell and his cinematographer, Kees Van Oostrum, do a fantastic job of capturing the beautiful images shot at King’s Landing in Ontario, Canada. The scenery is picturesque, and each shot in the film is beautifully-lit and photographed. The original score by Laurent Eyquem is very beautiful, and haunting. And at times, his music reminds you of the classic westerns, as villagers mill about the town in excitement. Both Mr. Oostrum and Mr. Eyquem should also be recognized for their work come awards season.
Overall, Copperhead is a powerful film that looks at a little-known, but just as important, chapter from the history of the American Civil War, and how politics can truly be damaging to communities in a time of conflict. If you enjoyed the previous films by Ronald F. Maxwell, or enjoy serious, thought provoking character drama and historical films, then I highly recommend you see Copperhead, which serves as powerful reminder of the price of dissent, and the need for civility in the realm of politics.
Grade: 9/10, or A-