It was unthinkable: The Confederacy, which entered the Civil War with Powerball odds of winning it, could smell independence. Ironically, this whiff of freedom whipped across the air just as Independence Day approached. In a much deeper, sadder irony, the creators of the Confederacy fancied themselves as a new generation of Revolutionaries, refiners of the masterpiece that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison had given to the world. In July 1863, Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania with the ultimate intention of sacking Washington and deposing Abraham Lincoln. By so doing, the light of democracy first lit at Valley Forge and Yorktown would be snuffed out forever. With it, the cries of four million slaves would have been silenced, as well.
“So short has been the American Union, that men who lived to see it rise may live to see it fall.”William Howard Russell
Thus sets the stage for the bloodiest battle in the Western Hemisphere. No movie could truly capture the Shakespearean scope of those few days, but Gettysburg does much to bottle the mind-boggling fury for public consumption. The biggest players get cast with recognizable faces, and just about everybody from the history books gets a vignette or two. At four hours and fourteen minutes, this is a lot to digest in one sitting. As the battle divides neatly into a three-act play–one for each day, plus a somber epilogue–you can easily split this into one day at a time.
Day 1 really serves as prologue to the main brawl. Both armies race toward Gettysburg, with the intent of seizing any strategic advantage. Most of this narrative focuses on Union General John C. Buford (Sam Elliot) and his attempts to keep the high ground in Northern hands. Meanwhile, Gen. Lee (Martin Sheen) is already alarming his chief subordinate, James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), with signs of uncharacteristic recklessness. The two armies spend the day like prize fighters, feeling each other out for weaknesses.
By the second day, both forces are fully assembled and ready for some truly savage fighting. This segment features Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a mild-mannered academic in charge of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. Although he lacks any formal military training, Chamberlain’s men must defend the extreme left flank of the army, with the fate of the country hanging in the balance. This day also shows us the movie’s most touching subplot, as Confederate General Lewis Armistead (Richard Jordan) wonders about his best friend, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. As Hancock commands three infantry corps, Armistead is mortified that the two men might meet in battle. Jordan died shortly after filming concluded, giving his scenes an added, aching poignancy.
July 3rd serves as the grand finale, with the all-out disaster of Pickett’s Charge. Lee’s bloodlust finally grows boundless, and he orders 15,000 of his best men into the withering fire of Union riflemen. Longstreet is shown as a tragic figure, unable to reign in his commander’s impulse and stop the carnage before it starts. Gen. Pickett (Stephen Lang) comes across as a brash glory hound, oblivious to the danger for his troops. The film does a great job of building dread for this death march by showing it in real time.
The entire cast excels at portraying the reputations of such legendary figures. Sheen’s Lee is the embodiment of well-mannered frostiness, which Berenger balances with his amiable, plain-spoken Longstreet. Lang imbues George Pickett with a frightening twinkle, one that belies his ill-fated hunger for battle. These actors are all great, but Gettysburg belongs to Daniels. Chamberlain is one of the Civil War’s greatest heroes, and Daniels plays him as possessed with equal doses of goodness and greatness, and an admirable idealism unblemished by the horrors of war.
Gettysburg may not be a comprehensive study into one of America’s greatest battles, but it does make for a nice starting point. Writer-director Ronald Maxwell filmed on the actual battlefield, and deployed a legion of reenactors to really take the viewer back to that time and place. The result isn’t perfect–Maxwell makes too much time for too many meaningful monologues and assumes you have quite a bit of built-in knowledge of the battle beforehand–but it’s intelligent and entertaining, all the same. “[The Civil War] was the crossroads of our being,” author-historian Shelby Foote notes. “And it was a hell of a crossroads.” Gettysburg takes us to the center of that crossroads, and the exact moment when the Union took its biggest step toward saving itself.
254 min. PG.