I saw COPPERHEAD today. Were I a tough movie critic, I suppose I’d give it a C or a B-, mainly for dramatic shortcomings. But still, you should go see it in the theater if you can, because you know you’ll have oodles more chances to see Monsters U and Man of Steel and the new zombie movie that a friend says stinks. And because even after the not-so-predictable success of Spielberg’s LINCOLN, we need to support history-focused movies like this one. No real spoilers in what follows.
My worries about the script due to its (script) writer Bill Kauffman, expressed in a post last month, were neither fully confirmed nor entirely dismissed. But the film was interesting and enjoyable enough that they mainly melted away. As predicted, the film doesn’t have any character voice the case against the Copperhead position in a convincing way. As predicted, the film is too coy about displaying the fact that the more typical brand of Copperhead-ism was quite racist. And that means, as my CNU Center for American Studies colleague Jonathan White noted after we saw the film today, historical accuracy about the overall Copperhead phenomenon was tweaked here. White, an expert on Civil War dissent, told me for example that, contrary to what might be implied by a threatened tarring-and-feathering of Copperhead characters in the film, there were only a couple such incidents. So as I expected, accuracy was tweaked in favor of crafting kind of a Porcher fable, even though it perhaps was accurate about a small minority of those called Copperheads. But, still, I liked this fable, and liked the way it was combined with a loving portrayal of small-town 1860s rural life.
Other good points: Kauffman or the original author penned a fine little speech at one point about the “fever of war.” I resist the usual equation of Bush-era neo-conservative foreign policy with blood-lust Imperialism that Kauffman and virtually all of The American Conservative crowd goes for, and indeed suggest it is its own kind of hateful fever, but I agree with the basic moral taught by this film, to use natural attachment to your community and kin to keep you from being too readily drawn to nationalist war-enthusiasm, or from being too unwary of that spirit even if you do wind up supporting the war in question. So sure, I’m with that speech, and with that aspect of what the main Copperhead character teaches. I agree he’s the hero of this situation, even if I think he was wrong about Lincoln and the war. There is also the headline “love your neighbor” speech featured near the end which will move everyone and impress many—while it is heavy-handedly presented, that style fits the character and the moment.
And in a strange way, the movie feels applicable to our times: when the main Copperhead character starts sincerely explicating his theory about how Lincoln is undermining the Constitution, and you see his fellow townsmen react with discomfort and a realization that this opinion could cause their friendly relations with him to break down, one thinks of a somewhat similar tension that can enter our conversations these days, with lots of folks like yours truly worrying about Obama and the Constitution. Generally, I think there are aspects of the movie that helpfully model how to work against various dynamics of anger, mistrust, and accusation that partisan divides can tempt us towards.
Bill Kaufman does come up short with some of the dialogue however, especially with the two main father characters. The acting for those wasn’t so good, either, although to be fair, the anti-Copperhead abolitionist father being one of most over-the-top repulsively holier-than-thou scripture-quoting characters since the John Lithgow preacher in the original FOOTLOOSE probably makes his role impossible to pull off.
I especially object to the scene where he goes into raptures over the Emancipation Proclamation while ignoring his daughter’s pleas to learn whether the man she loves is on the casualty-list. It is a scene that goes out of its way to make the Emancipation Proclamation moment a most sour one. Yes, not a few abolitionists were unhinged, but how many were ever that insensitive to their own daughters? Most of the audience will simply find the scene unbelievable.
There’s also just too many unclear moments in the film.
Now I suppose many will use shortcomings like these to dismiss the whole thing as didactic melodrama, but honestly, if you can let yourself get sentimental enough to enjoy an episode of something like the WALTONS, and you have interest in the Civil War era, you’ll probably like COPPERHEAD.