The facial hair is more plausible than ever in Ron Maxwell's latest cinematic portrait of the Civil War era, and this time, focusing on the New York home front, the director of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals looks past the literary efforts of the Shaara family and back to the 19th century, when Harold Frederic wrote the source story -- which is no relation to the 1920 Lionel Barrymore silent movie of almost the same name. Frederic's story was adapted by Bill Kauffman, a writer I know as a contributor to The American Conservative magazine. Less orthodox than the title suggests, TAC is anti-interventionist in foreign policy -- they don't care for the "isolationist" label -- and opposed the invasion of Iraq. Kauffman envisioned Copperhead as primarily an anti-war movie, but he wanted to challenge audiences by making the case in the context of a "good war." The challenge puts audiences in a complicated position, because we understand that the character expressing unpopular opinions is supposed to be our protagonist. He's Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), a resident of "The Corners," a small community in northern New York. A staunch Democrat, he despises Abraham Lincoln and sees the war against secession as the first of many violations of the Constitution. Unfortunately for him, public opinion in The Corners has turned against him in the past decade. Once as staunchly Democratic as Abner himself, it turned Republican in the 1860 election, and after secession and the bombardment of Fort Sumter, most people rapidly caught up with the once-despised radicalism of the town's loudest abolitionist, Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen). It seems simple to them: the Confederates quit the Union and attacked the American flag, and that makes traitors of them and anyone who questions the need to suppress them. Abner and his family grow increasingly isolated, with only the Irishman (and thus reliable Democrat) Hurley (Hugh Thompson) at his side when they go to vote, without benefit of secret ballot, in the 1862 gubernatorial election. The Democratic candidate wins on a peace platform, further embittering The Corners against Beech.
Since our story comes from 19th century literature, there is a romantic complication. Abner's son Jeff (for Thomas Jefferson) loves Hagadorn's daughter Esther (Lucy Boynton), though she's inherited enough of her father's fanaticism that she can't stand the name Jeff, identifying it with Jefferson Davis. She convinces her beau to change his name to Tom, and he himself, in rebellion against his father's hostility to the Hagadorns, enlists for the war. He fights at Antietam and is reported missing. While Esther worries and Jee's own rebellious son (Augustus Prew) travels south as a civilian to find Tom, the fathers reveal themselves as equally insensitive extremists, Jee indifferent to Tom's fate in his ecstasy over the Emancipation Proclamation, Abner dismissing him as having brought his doom upon himself. Each man is so consumed by ideology that an individual life no longer matters to either of them.
A further complication: after Abner celebrates the Democratic victory with a bonfire on his farm, like a flaming thumb in the eye to the local majority, Esther learns that Republican extremists, including her father, plan to tar and feather him. She goes to the Beech farm to warn the family, and is trapped their when the mob arrives. When the mob accidentally sets the farmhouse on fire, the Beeches get out, but Esther doesn't. Just about this time, her brother arrives with a one-armed Jeff in tow. Having seen horrors down South, he sees more at home....
Admittedly, Kauffman and Maxwell wanted to complicate anti-war sentiment, and in doing so they play with fire. Copperhead begs the question whether one can only be anti-war without taking a side on the issues of the war in question. Can you oppose the Civil War, for instance, without implicitly endorsing secession and or slavery? For Abner Beech it's a split decision: he grudgingly admits that slavery is wrong, but considers it none of his business, while letting the Confederacy go is preferable, as far as he's concerned, to the ongoing bloodbath for which he blames Lincoln. Challenged by the town blacksmith (Peter Fonda), Abner claims to value the Union, but values local things more. It would have been interesting had some character asked him whether he valued anything more than the Constitution, given his obsession with Lincoln's actual or supposed violations of the sacred document. Reportedly, the filmmakers are more evenhanded toward Frederic's characters than the original author was, though that makes me wonder what sort of outrageous grotesque the original Jee Hagadorn was compared to Macfadyen's ranting, singing, cane-pounding fanaticism. While modern viewers can recognize Campbell's Abner as the sort of crank they see and hear today, you wonder whether people like Jee ever actually walked or limped on earth. While Abner remains the more sympathetic character, the film calls the character out when he grows too stubborn, self-righteous or simply hateful. He can't be called the hero of the film -- the story may have no real hero. But the film's very existence seems intended to carry on Abner's questioning of the Civil War. It offers no judgment of its own on the war, contenting itself with a lesson in tolerance and loving thy neighbor -- carefully including an extra attack on slavery -- to The Corners. Abner's question -- whether this war or any war is worth it -- is left hanging. That ambiguity is a hard sell at a time when Django Unchained exploits the easy assumption that slaveholders deserve death. Almost inevitably, coverage of the film appears restricted to conservative media, which might create expectations of a more reactionary message than the film actually delivers.
Copperhead is at its best when Kauffman and Maxwell take time to portray village life in detail, from trips to the general store to the operations of the sawmill. It's most successful at the level of art direction, while the story's slow start actually works to adjust us to the pace of 19th century life. As a neophyte screenwriter, Kauffman exposes his limitations when characters debate each other; he can't vest those scenes with the life of authentic conversation, though he might excuse their clunkiness as illustrating Abner and Jee's increasing detachment from everyday concerns and real relationships. As with the writing, so with the acting. The younger performers who don't have to embody extreme political views generally fare better than the two stars. As for the direction, Maxwell doesn't have to worry about underbudgeted battles this time, and that's a good thing, as he's better at atmosphere than action. Regrettably, the dramatic climax of the picture, the fire scene, is its worst directed moment. The film's biggest failing, however, is the likelihood that people will leave it still wondering what Maxwell and Kauffman were trying to tell them. They might say they meant only to raise questions, but while they certainly succeeded at that, I'm not sure whether all the questions audiences ask will be those the authors intended.