Monday, June 27, 2011

Gods and Generals – Director’s Cut Blu-ray Review

Re-edited from beginning to end with one hour of new footage added, including expanded scenes and an added subplot, this all-new 2-Disc Extended Director’s Cut – a prequel to Maxwell’s companion film, Gettysburg- restores his original vision of the fierce allegiances and combat during the early American Civil War.  From Jeffrey M. Shaara’s best seller , this release adds the story of actor and future Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, newly integrated throughout the narrative.  Also, the Battle of Antietam is now included, along with the fateful clashes at Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, plus camp life scenes. Oscar winners Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies) and Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) star along with Jeff Daniels (Good Night and Good Luck), Stephen Lang (Avatar) and Bruce Boxleitner (TRON: Legacy) in this expansive film.

Film (3 out of 5 stars)

Unlike Ron Maxwell’s earlier entry Gettysburg, which maintained a balanced objective view of both sides of the Civil War conflict, his second entry Gods and Generals, abandons that objectivity and reticence and glorifies the Confederacy’s views and position.  That pendulum swing of focus hurts this film since part of why Gettysburg was so treasured was due to it’s impartiality when presenting the historical record.  This film is primarily focused on the South and two of its Generals – Robert E. Lee and especially Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  There’s a token effort to tell the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s entrance into the Union army before he was defending Little Round Top in Gettysburg, but that’s about all the time allocated for the Union coverage.
The film begins two years before the Battle at Gettysburg, and events such as the firing on Fort Sumpter, and President Lincoln’s calling up of reserves that puts the both the North and South on edge.  Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) is offered the command of the Union forces by presidential request, but he turns it down opting instead to fight for his native state of Virginia.  Despite not being comfortable with slavery or the idea of succession, Lee still felt that his loyalty belonged with his home state more than the Union.
For “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang), he also didn’t toe the party line as far as slavery but he was a strong supporter of Confederate beliefs and was determined to kill any opposing force that invaded Virginia.  Originally serving as a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery for the Virginia Military Institute (his teachings are still being taught today), Jackson eagerly joined the Confederate army and relished the opportunity to defend his state.
In Maine, we see Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) leave his wife Francis (Mira Sorvino) and their children behind to enlist in the Union army due to his convictions and we see his indoctrination into military strategy and practices.  His brother Thomas (C.Thomas Howell) has also enlisted with him and they meet Sgt. Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway who turned down a role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy for this).
Once all of the players are in place, we see a succession of battles between the two forces, starting with First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, the Battle of Antietam, and Chancellorsville.  In a nice change of pace from Gettysburg, these battles seem more dire and the extras involved seem to be more invested this time around.  Gone are scenes of extras looking around or not paying attention to what their goal is supposed to be.  This time, the battles are more ferocious and the fighting looks far more believable and desperate.  Maxwell’s direction of this film has greatly improved as far as the battle choreography and the look of the film.  Where he fails though is as the scriptwriter, since Gods and Generals becomes a master class in exposition.
In Gettysburg, the historical figures would often eloquently talk to their comrades in a way that felt heightened but believable.  In Gods and Generals, Maxwell frequently has the characters talk directly to the audience in long soliloquies that are so out of context that they take the viewer out of the film.  There’s also an extra emphasis on religious overtones that wasn’t as prevalent in Gettysburg. It also doesn’t help that the movie portrays just about every Southerner as against slavery and the questionable scenes of slaves cheering for the Confederate soldiers doesn’t help. With scenes like these, it seems almost like Maxwell is sweeping the whole issue under the rug. Only a poignant scene with Chamberlain discussing his views of slavery redeems the rest of these questionable decisions. These tonal shifts along with the new apparent sympathy for the Confederate position and a plodding exposition filled script, has the end result of undermining the film and the praise of objectivity that the first movie rightfully earned.

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (2.40:1) transfer is a lot better than its predecessor with a lot more detail evident throughout the movie.   It does however share some of the same issues due to the 280 minute movie being compressed to one BD-50 disc and some problems with noise in darkly lit scenes and many soft looking shots.  Despite these problems, this movie looks a lot better than Gettysburg, and in addition to the much improved detail, the colors are more vibrant and the flesh tones seem more life-like and consistent.  The black levels are improved as well but it’s still not as dark as it could have been.  If the movie had been split across two discs, I think this would have looked much better.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Gods and General’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also is a vast improvement over Gettysburg.  Whereas the first movie barely made any effort to utilize the rear speakers, Gods and Generals wisely uses every channel to provide an authentic you are there experience.  The sounds of battle now have an immediacy that was lacking before, as shots from rifles, cannons, and muskets come from every channel to provide accurate positioning and a nice immersive experience.  Dialogue is clear and the score by Randy Edelman and John Frizzell is well mixed in along with the rest of the track.  Since the audio portion was my biggest complaint about the Gettysburg set, it’s nice to see that this release is so much better.

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Most of the extras that were on the previous DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray releases have been included although they are in standard definition.
  • Commentary with Ron Maxwell, Keith Gibson and Professor James Robertson – This is the original scene specific commentary on the previous Blu-ray release of the movie.  I’d recommend the Extended Cut commentary since it covers more ground and is more engaging.
  • Extended Cut Commentary with Maxwell, Gibson and Robertson – This is a brand new commentary track that includes the additional material that was included into this new extended cut.  There’s a lot less gaps in this track than there were in the Gettysburg one and there’s some good information, but you should still be prepared to go through large gaps of silence.
  • Introduction by Ted Turner and Ron Maxwell - Turner and Maxwell spend ten minutes introducing the extended cut to us and Turner talks about his childhood in Georgia which gives us an idea why he spent around $65 million of his own money to fund this film.
  • Gods & Generals: Journey to the Past – A typical EPK featurette hosted by actress Donzaleigh Abernathy where the lives of the main players and the battles they were involved in, are covered along with interviews from the cast.
  • The Life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – Gods and Generals author Jeff Shaara and historians discuss the life of the revered General.
  • The Authenticities of the Film – A short look into the efforts of the filmmakers to make this film as historically authentic as possible.
  • Cross the Green Mountain – Music Video by Bob Dylan
  • Ron Maxwell’s Invitation to Take the Journey Through Hallowed Ground – Maxwell invites the viewers to look into a preservation society’s efforts to maintain the swath of Civil War battlefields and landmarks from Gettysburg to Monticello.
  • 48-page Blu-ray Book – An excellent quality mini book that offers cast and historical information as well as time-lines, and more.
  • Theatrical Trailer

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

One one hand I admire the effort that went into making this movie but on the other, I find that that admiration is solely limited to the actors performances and the the times when historical accuracy is well represented.  This movie has many slow points and is filled with jarring monologues, but the actors do such a good job that I found myself overlooking those flaws,which is impressive since so much recasting has been done for this. With Duvall replacing Martin Sheen, and Stephen Lang portraying Jackson (after Russell Crowe dropped out) instead of Pickett as he did originally, one would think that the movie might suffer, but all of them did a great job.
I haven’t seen the theatrical version of this movie, but the extra footage added of John Wilkes Boothe acting in some plays should have remained deleted since it adds nothing to the plot of the movie and also serves as a deterrent to the film’s efforts at accuracy by stretching the suspension of disbelief when not only does Boothe perform for Lincoln (and deliver a thinly disguised line from the play at him) but he also meets Chamberlain and they end up discussing whether or not Julius Caesar’s assassins were heroes or villains.  It’s all too on the nose and derails the film’s claim to historical accuracy.  Between that and the loss of objectivity earns from it’s pro-South stance, it’s hard to promote this as an educational tool like Gettysburg.
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