Free Men: 'Copperhead' pits the First Amendment against the Fourteenth

We claim to want art that challenges our assumptions. Yet cutting through the build up from our education and enculturation isn’t easy. It is especially difficult when the art we hope will entertain us also seeks to inform us about well-known historical events.

The new movie “Copperhead”endeavors to test our fundamental views about the American Civil War. It is also a parable of dissent, tolerance and the dangers of fanaticism. The final installment of director Ron Maxwell’s trilogy—following “Gettysburg” (1993) and “Gods and Generals” (2003), “Copperhead” considers the effects of the war on two families in upstate New York. Based on an 1893 novel by Harold Frederic, it takes place during the spring of 1862.

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Farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) is a self-professed Copperhead: a proud Democrat, born and bred in the north, who opposes the war. His main objection is related to legal matters; he thinks many of President Lincoln’s actions violate the rights of states and individuals and are therefore unconstitutional. A principled man, he’s not motivated by political partisanship or personal animosity toward Lincoln. And unlike many Copperheads, he does not favor appeasement. He believes the South should be allowed to secede.

There’s also a pacifist strain in his position (Copperheads were alternately dubbed Peace Democrats). He describes war as a “fever” and this particular conflict as a “wicked war between brothers.” He believes it is too big a price to pay for unity, arguing that “the cure is worse than the disease.” But the “disease,” according to Beech, is a divided nation, not slavery. On that issue, he is agnostic. He never condemns the practice outright, neither is there any inkling he is for it; he is unwilling to hang his anti-war argument on the issue. Beech comes off as an isolationist—a champion of states’ rights, yes, but mostly a citizen with a libertarian bent who believes the federal government should leave people to themselves.

As the war escalates, this respected member of his community finds himself in the minority. Only his Irish farm hand shares his views, and there is discord within his own family. His son, Jeff Beech (Casey Brown), loves a woman named Esther (Lucy Boynton), the daughter of widower and zealous abolitionist Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfayden). Although Jeff’s affection is requited, Esther disapproves of his father’s anti-war stance. Her father, a fervent Christian, orchestrates a boycott of Beech’s farm products, and the elder Beech is ostracized in other ways.

By making their hero a Copperhead, director Maxwell and screenwriter Bill Kauffman question the consensus of history. Was preserving the Union and ending slavery truly worth the toll on the people, the land and the Constitution? Was the Civil War a “just war”? Interestingly, one of Beech’s key objections pertains to the 4th condition necessary for a war to be deemed “just” according to Catholic doctrine, namely: “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

The filmmakers don’t offer a definite answer and the characters don’t offer the requisite moral calculation. Still, it is fascinating to watch a film in which the protagonist—the man you expect to root for—is on the wrong side of history, morally speaking. In contrast, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the president employs unsavory political tactics, but despite his flaws our hero is right about the big issue. Lincoln doesn’t gloss over moral and political complexities, yet it leans toward hagiography. In other words, the film confirms what we already believe. In “Copperhead,” however, Beech, despite his rectitude in other areas, can’t be considered a champion against slavery.

"Copperhead" also departs from narrative convention by daring to have the supposed villain occupy the high moral ground in a significant way. The scripture-quoting Hagadorn is painted as fanatical and quite possibly insane; and the minister seems to be his puppet. It would seem that religion serves the unfortunate function of fueling those arrayed against the presumably righteous hero. But if we assume abolitionists were right to support the war, religion is actually on the side of the angels—a progressive force.

Yet Hagadorn’s transgressions outweigh his virtues in the film, and so the deck is stacked in favor of Beech regarding everything save his stand on the war. This leaves the viewer with the impression that the filmmakers’ chief aim is to defend a principle other than equal protection under the law for all human beings. That principle is free speech and the right of individuals to hold and express views that are anathema to the majority. Tolerance for dissent, not tolerating slavery, is their burning issue. At stake is the freedom to be a nonconformist, even if one’s opinions are morally wrong.

That’s not all. In the penultimate scene, Ni Hagadorn (Augustus Prew), the elder Hagadorn’s son, delivers impassioned remarks in church about the necessity of understanding and cooperation. He hopes, “Maybe in the face of all this madness we can start loving our neighbor.” As uplifting as this message is, it fails to redeem Beech’s inability to acknowledge that something as reprehensible as slavery could require an extreme, and potentially violent, remedy.

Although thought-provoking, "Copperhead," as one might expect, fails to make a compelling case that the war was not worth fighting. It does, however, compel us to examine our own assumptions about both a tragic historical event and about narrative conventions—with one eye on our moral compass, and the other on the First Amendment—not a minor accomplishment.

“Copperhead” has an earnest, deliberate quality accentuated by languorous pacing. The slow tempo gives us ample time to think about Beech’s position and what is not being shown or said, making it all the more frustrating that the evil of slavery is not addressed head-on by any character.

The camera fixates on the bucolic setting (the picture was filmed at Kings Landing Historical Settlement in New Brunswick, Canada). This makes sense considering the agrarian roots of the Copperhead movement and the value Beech places on his pastoral way of life. But it’s tiresome nonetheless. Peppered with Biblical language and imagery, Kauffman’s script overdoes the period colloquialisms and resorts to a pat Romeo & Juliet subplot. As for the acting, Angus Macfayden and Augustus Prew stand out for their impressive performances.

To burrow beneath fundamental beliefs and dislodge deep-seated convictions, a movie (or a novel or a painting) must possess a certain degree of aesthetic power. This doesn’t mean it has to be traditionally beautiful or technically perfect, only that it makes an impact and has formal integrity. When this happens, a work can rise to the level of art. Maxwell and Kauffman merit praise for acknowledging historical complexity, but the films moral and aesthetic limitations keep “Copperhead” from entering this realm.

John P. McCarthy writes about theater, film and television for The Journal News, Boxoffice, and Catholic News Service.

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