Gods And Generals

on February 21, 2003 by Stephen Jared
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Set at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, "Gods and Generals" follows the strategies of confederate legends General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) and Colonel "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) while portraying the profoundly horrific cost of war. The film is a prequel to the 1993 release "Gettysburg" and covers the time period leading up to that battle. Writer/director for both films Ronald Maxwell obviously loves the Civil War as cinematic material, given his handling of it with such great care. However, somewhere past the third hour you begin to wonder if maybe he loves it a little too much.

Overstatement, especially when there is no pulling back from it, can handicap poignancy. During scenes off the battlefield, one looks for some sign of normal humanity but instead finds grand, melodramatic expressions of love and overly affectionate, respectful relations between blacks and whites. These scenes come off as a little simplistic given the complicated history dramatized. Contrastingly, there are mass contradictions within Stonewall Jackson, dynamically portrayed by Lang, which inform us that everything in life is not beautiful and precious. It is disappointing that Ron Maxwell decided not to pass some of this complexity around to other characters. Early in the film, Jackson laughs when one of his soldiers tells him, "We will run to the enemy and trot away." Later, he watches coldly while members of his beloved brigade are shot as punishment for an attempt at desertion. Yet he is a man who prays to God with humility and passion and professes the deepest love for his wife and child. If all "Gods'" characters were as interesting as Jackson, this film would have been a truly impressive achievement. But supporting performances by Mira Sorvino and Kevin Conway do offer their characters an expansiveness beyond their screen time, while the film is beautifully shot by Kees Van Oostrum and the sounds of battle by Stephen Halbert measure up to the greatness of "Saving Private Ryan." There is in fact much to relish in this epic but somehow, despite a nearly four-hour running time, there is something missing. Starring Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall. Directed, written and produced by Ronald F. Maxwell. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for sustained battle sequences. Running time: 229 min

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