Sometimes, what is best for history is not best for drama. And here, where we know how the story of the Civil War ends, the film-maker’s relentless even-handedness removes whatever drama the story might have had by making every one of the characters endlessly honorable, devoted to God, home, and family, good to the slaves, and able to spout poetry, the classics, or the Bible in the midst of the direst circumstances.
This is a movie where the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (still so revered in Virginia that the place he died is not called a memorial, but a shrine) calls the black man he is about to hire as a cook “Mr. Lewis,” and where Mr. Lewis is so well educated, despite being from a part of the country where educating black people is illegal, that he quotes Napoleon. Later on, General Jackson explains to Mr. Lewis that the South would like to free all the slaves. It just wants to do that without being forced to by the federal government, so that the South can build an enduring friendship with the people who were kidnapped and sold into bondage. Meanwhile, on the other side, a Northern officer who will become the most decorated soldier in the Union army, tells his brother that the war was not fought about slavery, but now that it is underway, it is so terrible that it has to be justifed by making some great, sweeping, change for justice.
So, the bottom line is that this careful, meticulous, lovingly crafted three and a half hour movie feels even longer. Its PG-13 television-ready (it will be expanded to six hours for a miniseries) level of violence may make it suitable for junior high history class field trips, but does not truly convey the tragic carnage of the war that had Americans fighting with each other. All the soldiers have nice uniforms and enough to eat. Officers at the front get visits from their devoted wives at places that 150 years later will be made into quaint bed and breakfast inns. And everyone is on the right side.
And — everyone encompasses a lot of people. Hard core Civil War buffs (there were a couple in the screening I attended in full uniform) may be able to follow the endless series of characters and their advances and retreats, all identified with brief subtitles, but anyone else will have a hard time.
The movie gives us too little information, but it also gives us too much, telegraphing its developments and themes. We can tell when an officer tells a general that he has a better idea and the general rejects it because his plan has been approved by Lincoln that it is a mistake. And we can tell when an impossibly cute little girl becomes too important to a character that she won’t make it to the end of the story.
Parents should know that the movie has sustained battle violence and bloody scenes of caring for wounded soldiers. Many characters die.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that more than 160 years later, people in the United States still disagree about the causes and effects of the Civil War (which some still call the War Between the States). What did the soldiers on both sides have in common? What were their differences? Given what is going on in the world right now, what did we learn?
Families who want to know more about the Civil War should watch the superb PBS series by Ken Burns, which makes its characters more vivid and its storyline more compelling than this fictional version. They should also see three outstanding movies about the Civil War, Glory, Friendly Persuasion, and The Red Badge of Courage. Thoughtful teens and adults should read the Pulitzer prize-winning The Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, about the power that the Civil War still holds over many Americans today.