Set in upstate New York during the Civil War, "Copperhead" is an adaption of an 1893 Harold Frederic novel that concerns itself not with North versus South so much as the less-discussed disagreements among those ostensibly on the same side of history. Farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) is against slavery but also opposes the war and sending local boys off to fight it, whereas Jee Hagadorn (Angus MacFadyen) believes ending slavery is worth any sacrifice and turns many of the local townspeople against Beech.
That Hagadorn is so consumed by his beliefs as to become an intractable zealot even in the name of a just cause makes a villain of a character one might expect to be the hero. (You half-expect the filmmakers to pop on screen to say, "See what we did there?") The film was directed by Ron Maxwell, who has refashioned himself as a chronicler of Civil War fiction with "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals" after an earlier career made up of the likes of "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" and "Little Darlings." The film's real point of view, however, comes more directly from Bill Kaufman, an author whose books include titles such as "Ain't My America" and "Look Homeward, America," here writing his first screenplay.
Where Tony Kushner's screenplay for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" found energetic drama in political wrangling and historical events, "Copperhead" crams far too much of its action into its last 30 minutes after a rambling, drawn-out set up. Painfully lugubrious, any sting "Copperhead" might contain for its contrarian's view of history is undone by its wayward sense of storytelling.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for an unsettling sequence.
Running time: 2 hours.
Playing: At Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena.