Rated PG, 248 min. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. Starring Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, Maxwell Caulfield, Kevin Conway, C. Thomas Howell, Richard Jordan, James Lancaster, Stephen Lang, Sam Elliott.
At four hours and eight minutes, plus intermission, Gettysburg is no date movie -- you won't have time for dinner before or energy for sex after. Originally intended as a TV mini-series, screenwriter/director Maxwell's adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, is faithful, fearless, and demands real commitment on the viewer's part. It repays with at least two Oscar-caliber performances and an epic recreation of the bloodiest battle in American history: thousands of Civil War reenactors trudge purposefully across the same rolling Pennsylvania farmland over which General George Pickett's division advanced to destruction 130 years ago. It is authentic right down to tobacco pouches and regional accents: a captured Tennesseean tells a bemused Union officer from Maine, “I'm here fightin' for my rats.” There are scenes of terrible beauty: the fight for Little Round Top, a savage melee on a gloomy wooded hillside, moved my companion, no Civil War buff, almost to tears. The overall production design by Austinite Cary White is superb. There is also, unfortunately, the Randy Edelman score, which sometimes overwhelms in its effort to make sure we know what we're watching is history come alive, or a real big movie, anyway. For all its lavish scale, however, Gettysburg is about the ideas and passions that propelled Northerners and Southerners at one another's throats. Early on, the earnest professor of rhetoric turned soldier, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Daniels, one of the bravest actors around), tells mutinous Union troops why they must continue to fight. The 1860s, as Shaara noted in his book, were “a naïve and sentimental time, and men spoke in windy phrases” that seem quaint to the modern ear. It's a mark of Maxwell's faith in the material that he retained this potentially fidget-making speechifying, and a testament to Daniels' ability that the scene works. On the Confederate side, Robert E. Lee (Sheen, in top form) is by turns the remote, brilliant Virginia aristocrat and the all-too-human victim of his own success. His absolute belief that his men can carry out any order he gives them is shared by the unabashed romantics who surround him -- among them, Lang's exuberant Pickett and Jordan's tormented Lewis Armistead, who agonizes over the fate that has placed him directly opposite his best friend in the Union Army. Only General James Longstreet (Berenger) stands slightly apart, one of the first of the new breed of warrior who has “sense the birth of the new war of machines”; unable to speak the order that will launch Pickett's charge, he can only nod disconsolately. Whether depicting great masses of men engaged in the hot, sweaty work of making war or focused on individuals trapped by their own standards of honor, morality, and manhood, Gettysburg enthralls. See it on the big screen. It is history come alive, by God.
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