Movies

'Gods and Generals': A Distant Battle

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2003

You have to give "Gods and Generals" high marks for honesty, for its title tells you exactly what you're going to get for 3 1/2 hours: the Civil War, from the point of view of generals -- and of God.

Is that useful? Slightly. It re-creates in fulsome detail a certain aspect of battle: what it looks like from afar. It makes us wonder in awe at the courage of men who fought on either side, it makes us honor their commitment to something beyond the narrowness of their own lives -- that is, to faith and cause -- that enabled them to stand stoically in formation while shot and shell minced the atmosphere and their fellow soldiers.

But a better question is an older one, and the real stuff of narrative: What did it feel like? The movie has no idea. It's like looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. The spectacle is indeed stimulating as vast phalanxes of men maneuver across the faraway greensward. But one doesn't come away from it with any sense of what the victory cost in human terms or what it's like to face a rank of men shooting at you, or to jam a bayonet into somebody's guts or have one jammed into your guts. (See "Zulu" if you're curious about 19th-century war.)

There's also a philosophical issue: The movie is clearly intended as something of a Confederate Honor Restoration Project, in which the men of the South are cut loose from the weight of slavery's evil and portrayed as God-fearing, patriotic, noble and heroic. You may or may not buy this, but at the very least, it should be pointed out that the argument is dependent on the selection of events it chooses. Other events would make other arguments. Ask the citizens of Lawrence, Kan., or the inmates of Andersonville Prison how noble the Confederacy was.

This is the first part of what will ultimately be a triptych. (The first movie released was the middle part, "Gettysburg"; the last part is yet to come.) Derived from the fictionalized history of the Shaaras, father Michael and son Jeff, the movie repeats the formula of "Gettysburg": the assistance, full-throated and over-enthusiastic, of the reenactment community, all 10,000 of them; the appearance of second-tier Hollywood performers in the larger speaking roles, and regional professionals in less pressing roles; the tone of irony-free earnestness not found in an American movie in at least 30 years; the special effects of such pitiful cheesiness you feel like your kid did them on his Apple while watching TV. (The little dioramas of Fredericksburg, Va., seem especially pathetic!)

But what it lacks is more telling: a solid narrative structure. "Gettysburg" told of a single event, from a multiplicity of points of view, and it encapsulated the rhythms of battle as it surged toward climax, followed by equal measures of despair and triumph. It is a tragic but unavoidable fact: Whatever battles may lack in niceties, they make up for in narrative efficiency, which is why so many great novels have been written about them.

The big fight starts, it rises and falls, it reaches a hideous peak. When it's over, lots of folks are dead and the landscape, made bloody, is forever changed. And within that narrative were smaller, even tighter narratives: "Gettysburg" turned on a Maine regiment's desperate stand at Little Round Top, and it was the movie's strongest sequence, an epic American "Iliad" fought on a 50-foot-high stone lump in Pennsylvania.

By contrast, "Gods and Generals" recounts a larger, less focused tale, which begins before secession, ambles through the first few years of the war, covers three separate battles (First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville) while ignoring others (no Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history!) and eventually arrives just where the first movie began, with the forces marshaling in southern Pennsylvania for a big go.

It offers story, but of a different sort -- story not out of events but out of biography. The focus here -- despite the presence of Jeff Daniels repeating as Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the Maine hero of Little Round Top, and Robert Duvall, as an almost ethereal Robert E. Lee -- is on that perplexing figure Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, played by Stephen Lang. There is no doubt that this is a promotion for Lang, who merely played the charge-leader George Pickett in the first film. There is no doubt he is a superb actor and there is no doubt that he communicates the force, the intellect, the commitment, the righteousness and the love that comprised that most revered of Confederate generals.

And yet, somehow, it doesn't quite work. Writer-director Ron Maxwell is a literalist, not an interpreter, and he has chosen to give us Stonewall straight on, exactly as his letters and contemporary accounts recorded him. I can see the argument: That is the man, here are his words, here are his deeds. What more is there?

Yet there needs to be more, somehow. Maxwell hasn't made any attempt to find a gesture or an anecdote that will dramatize the complexities of Jackson to a modern audience. Somehow it's too much and not enough at once to repeat Jackson's dying declaration, or his many recorded speeches. The past is an undiscovered country; things were different then. For one thing, the educated man didn't speak in words, but in prose, vividly complete, thorough and time-consuming. There being no other distractions, nobody was in a hurry to get to the point, except possibly Grant, which may be why he won. So when Jackson over and over speechifies to subordinates and colleagues, it is certainly historically true. But Maxwell and Lang haven't found a way to make these chunks of language seem spontaneous, or found a way to let us see into the mind that could create them. He remains a figure; he's never a character.

But it's not as if the stiff Maxwell had a choice. He attempts a more believable emotional intimacy between Daniel's Chamberlain and his wife (played by Mira Sorvino), as Chamberlain, then a college professor, sets off for that cruel war, his mind full of doubt. Good lord, does it blow! It's like a parody on "Saturday Night Live," wretchedly sentimental and emotionally unpalatable. Again, these may be true words as recalled from diaries; yet the director and his cast haven't found a way of making them sing. They seem rote and comically dense.

What Maxwell does well, he actually doesn't do that well, really. But he is able to move big bodies of men around smoky fields amid electrically detonated flash pots. It seems that each reenactor chosen to die does so under the impression there's an Oscar category for Best Death Throes by an Extra. You never saw so much twisting and shouting in the ranks in your life. And Maxwell seems always to be looking for ways to annoy: He endlessly identifies officers who have no lines and no influence on events.

Occasionally, he stirs himself to a moment of poetry, as he did in "Gettysburg," in his evocation of Round Top. In "Gods and Generals," the lyric moment comes when, for once, he liberates his camera and follows Jackson and his command staff on a sweeping ride across the field at First Manassas, a sequence that captures the fury of the horse as deployed in 19th-century war as well as a stunning evocation of the glamour of the men who rode them into the guns.

But far more typically, the camera observes the battle as if peeking over God's shoulder, watching the deaths of the anonymous little yeomen from way up yonder. It's magnificent, but is it war?

Gods and Generals (216 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for routine battle violence.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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