During the Civil War era, “copperhead” was slang for Northerners who sympathized with the Confederate cause. There were even copperheads in New York state, though not all of them were against emancipation. But some were, including textile mill owners dependent on Southern cotton, Irish immigrants struggling to earn a living wage, and anti-Republican agrarians. This is just the tip of the iceberg in regard to incendiary topics that almost never make it into movie versions of the Civil War—and they are not touched upon in this latest 1860s period piece, Copperhead, a mediocre, maudlin family drama set in upstate New York. Filmed with faux intimacy within the confines of a living history museum in Canada (there are no battle scenes whatsoever, though Antietam is the pivotal event). Copperhead is especially disappointing considering the director, Ronald F. Maxwell, helmed the critically acclaimed and much loved four-hour Civil War epic, Gettysburg. That cinematic landmark was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, however, and in the 20 years since, it seems that Maxwell has not been able to find a decent script. His stuffy and meandering Gods and Generals from a decade ago, however, is thrill-a-minute compared to this homefront wannabe weepie.
The two families who are in conflict are the Beaches, led by patriarch Abner (reliably competent Billy Campbell), a Peace Democrat and farmer, and the Hagadorns, bullied over by papa Jee (Angus MacFadyen), a self-righteous Unionist lumber-mill owner. (MacFadyen chews the scenery like a giant plug of tobacco.) During the long interludes of speechifying and sermonizing, Abner’s doltish son, Jeff (amateurish Casey Thomas Brown), falls in love with Jee’s prim daughter, Esther (stagey Lucy Boynton). Clichés ensue even before Jeff marches off to war against his father’s orders. This star-crossed courting requires gallons of glycerin for the endless misty-eyed moments from all involved. And all are involved, because there is little else going on until a ludicrous midnight raid choreographed with less skill than a grade-school reenactment.
Peter Fonda, looking fit as a fiddle and delivering the one and only amusing line of dialogue, is onscreen for less than five minutes, despite his prominent billing. And don’t fall for the other marketing gambit that passes off Francois Arnaud, the medieval beefcake from The Borgias, as a co-star. He’s onscreen less than 10 minutes. And none of them are shirtless.