June 28, 2013
It's a miracle! A fascinating and compelling movie whose plot is driven by the protagonist's fidelity to the Constitution. (In fact there were more mentions of the Constitution than any other movie I have ever seen.) You have never seen a movie like Copperhead, and you ought to take the opportunity to see it on a big screen if you live in one of the forty-some cities where it is opening today. (update: list of theatres here) But even if you don't, it is available today via all on-demand platforms, which is a great strategy to reach the widely dispersed audience that would appreciate this movie and have access to on-demand via cable, satellite, or the internet.
The story covers several months starting in the spring of 1862, as the Civil War began to felt in upstate New York, where dairy farmer Abner Beech holds a very politically incorrect view for his time and place: he is a so-called Copperhead who believes that the war was unwise, that President Lincoln has violated the Constitution in his conduct of the war, and the Confederacy should be allowed to go its own way or reunite with the Union, as it wishes.
Far from being a racist indifferent to slavery, Beech deplores it, and the viewer discovers that he has been secretly part of the Underground Railroad funneling fugitive slaves to Canada. The neighbors that react negatively to his stance have no clue as to his beliefs, and the abuse he endures is in the end tragic in unexpected ways. I won't spoil the plot, but it is the very opposite of a preachy, talky movie about politics. The characters have depth, the acting and directing are terrific, and the plot moves forward in a completely logical and compelling manner. There is romance, conflict, violence, and much more.
Copperhead is the third installment in a Civil War trilogy by director Ronald Maxwell, the first being the now classic Gettysburg from 1993, and the second, widely acclaimed Gods and Generals from 2003, a kind of prequel to Gettysburg, following the rise and fall of Stonewall Jackson. Evidently, taking a full decade between chapters of the trilogy allowed creativity and mastery of detail to flourish.
Copperhead is a visual treat, with wonderful cinematography by Kees Van Oostrum, mated to a production design that conveyed a sense of what it was like to live in those days before modern conveniences, when a father would read a newspaper by lamplight to the rest of the family after dinner. For students, the movie can serve as a valuable history lesson on life in that era, as well as the major historical events, told from a viewpoint that has been not just neglected, but shunned. It should be a treat to take smart younger people to this movie and talk about the many issues it raises - not just about war but about life.
The Emancipation Proclamation comes during the picture, and we see its impact on the home front in the North. It made the war about slavery, whereas it had been about preserving the Union. Abner Beech hated slavery, but he loved the U.S. Constitution more, and he was unwilling to send his children off to die or be maimed in a bloody battle against fellow Americans.
The film is true to its characters and to its era, so it is far from a parable about, say, the situation facing conservatives in Obama's America, with the tea party regarded as the nation's top terror threat by over a quarter of Obama supporters. As a man who lived through the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 70s, I saw plenty of analogies between the copperheads and the antiwar movement, as should any honest leftists who happen to see it. Conservatives who see it today might gag on the on Beech's passionate advocacy of the Democrats, who were against the war at the time, and stood for the Constitution against the Republicans -- driven, as vividly portrayed in the movie, by the religious right of the time, the abolitionist clergy.
Copperhead is based on an 1893 novel of the same name by Harold Frederic, who grew up in upstate New York and lived through events similar to those portrayed in the novel he wrote thirty years later. More than a century later, the issues are still sensitive, and a focus on a protagonist who was an opponent of the war to free slaves faces an uphill battle. Most films which celebrate a dissenter who stood up for principle against the mob are about causes that today are seen as the right side of the question involved, such as the Salem witch trials or the battle to allow evolution to be taught. Copperhead takes a far more complex and nuanced approached to the role of dissident.
In the end, Abner Beech and the movie itself are deeply rooted in the love of home - family home, country home, and state home. The federal government comes in after these. In one of the most memorable lines of the film, when challenged by his neighbor Avery, a supporter of Lincoln and the war, Abner says, "My family means more to me, my farm means more. Even though we disagree, Avery, you mean more to me than The Union."
See it while you can.
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