Ten years after Gods and Generals, which itself came 10 years after Gettysburg, director Ron Maxwell returns yet again to the subject of the Civil War with Copperhead, which, at a mere two hours, aims for the sort of intimate character drama often dwarfed by the wider historical breadth of those earlier epics. To that end, there are no massively scaled battle scenes in the film; a fistfight is the closest it comes to depicting violent combat. Instead, Copperhead trains its focus almost entirely on “the war at home,” its conflicts fought almost entirely with words and actions rather than bloodshed—which will feel like torture for anyone who managed to endure the pedestrian acting and filmmaking of the character-based scenes in Gods and Generals.
The “copperhead” of the title is dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), who, unlike just about everyone else in the upstate New York town in which he and his family reside, refuses to support President Lincoln’s war against the South even as he decries slavery. The film, based on a 1893 Harold Frederic novel that was itself based on real events, aims to explore political and personal nuances of this sort, most notably when Beech’s son, Jeff (Casey Brown), marches off to war himself, thus forcing his father to put up a front of indifference regarding his concern for his son’s fate. Incidentally, Jeff impulsively becomes a soldier in part to please Esther (Lucy Boynton), daughter of Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen), an anti-slavery zealot who at first opposes Beech ideologically before waging an actual campaign against him, house-burning and all.
Copperhead, from beginning to end, exudes all the excitement of a textbook history lesson. It builds its drama on complex intersections of the political and personal during wartime, which is admirable only on the surface, as all the good intentions in the world add up to little when filmmaking is as strenuously didactic and terminally prosaic as Maxwell’s. As Hagadorn, Macfadyen gives off momentary sparks of life, especially in a couple of scenes where he exudes an inexplicably intoxicated demeanor, but neither he nor Peter Fonda, featured in a glorified cameo as a neighbor of Beech’s who functions as essentially a mouthpiece for the president’s political viewpoints, can puncture the film’s deadly respectability. The fact that this instantly musty museum piece leads, after an agonizing hour and 45 minutes, to a simple-minded sermon on loving thy neighbor merely adds insult to injury.