Finally, the prequel to "Gettysburg" is here, and it only took nine years and a couple of months, which, in all fairness, is about as long it takes to watch "Gettysburg". I love how this film is supposed to take place a couple of years before the events of "Gettysburg", and yet they've still got a lot of people reprising their roles after they've aged nine years, with the most notable recast being of Martin Sheen, and even then, he was replaced by Robert Duvall, who is, well, nine years older, so we're talking about a Robert E. Lee who magically became eighteen years younger and changed his voice just in time for the Battle of Gettysburg. Well, I guess I can at least forgive the age issues, because Duvall is doing good for 132, or whatever, and he's still a much better casting choice than Sheen; and besides, as good in shape as Robert Lee was, he always had an older look about him. He looked about old enough to appreciate this film, because it seems to be built for the older crowd, not just because older people seem to really dig their history, but because, at a certain age, you typically stop having other things to do, which would explain why most critics didn't care for this, because even with their being old as dirt, they actually have other stuff to get to eventually. Speaking of absurd stuff that I love to poke fun at, I love how I keep barking on about this film being so long, when really, even though it hit the theaters breaking the three-and-a-half hour mark, it was actually much shorter than "Gettysburg", and its timeline is actually broader than that of "Gettysburg", or at least that shorter length was the case until the extended version came along, because now, this film is finally longer than any version of "Gettysburg", including its own extended cut. Granted, this film's extended cut is only nine minutes longer than that of "Gettysburg", which is nothing when you consider the length of these films, yet that's still twenty minutes shy of five hours, and people were having enough trouble getting through the film when it was only a nudge over three-and-a-half hours. Well, I love a good history lesson, am too old to be this young and, as you can tell by my reviews page and how quickly it gets updtated, I have nothing else to do, so of course I like this film, yet there's no getting around the flaws, no matter how long the marching sequences are-I mean no matter how far you march.
"Gettysburg" was made so entertaining because there was more wartime intrigue than politics, and with this being a much less intrigue-riddled period piece that runs close to three hours and forty minutes, or, in the case of the considerably extended director's cut that I watched, from beginning to end, in one sitting, approximately [b][u]four hours and forty minutes[/u][/b] (That's right y'all, I don't mess around), it's to be expected that this film drag its feet here and there and make it all the worse with a rather dry, dull tone, especially when you take into consideration to absurdly excessive padding (Having seen bits and piece of the theatrical cut, I can safely say that, ironically, it's that very padding in the extended version that makes it leaner and more organic, even if it does also make things more uneven and bloated); but regardless of how most make it sound, its slow spots are far and few between, and never terribly severe to begin with, so it's not that much of a problem, and yet, if it was, it would still be among the least of this film's problems, though certainly more of a problem than the "pro-evil-Confederate overtone" that everyone has a big problem with. Man, I almost have to give credit to this film for having the guts to glorify the Confederates, because after all these many generations of simplification, many people soley rest on the idea that the South was riddled with evil, racist traitors who fought the war for the sake of unjust vanity, and only that, when in reality, while the Confederate States of America was not at all morally spotless, so much so that I wouldn't consider myself all that big a fan, both sides of the battlefield were somewhat even in morality and motivation, as well as flaws, with people simply trying to get theirs, which was mostly freedom, yet in different regards. That being the case, I don't so much have a problem with the film's glorifying the Confederates as much as I have a problem with the film's making a dire mistake that's absence in "Gettysburg" did wonders for the comfort in the storytelling: glorifying a single prominent layer to the point of making it seem stand-alone, until we eventually make a jarring shift in focus to another layer, which isn't to say that there aren't forcibly tossed-in sublayers all over the place within these major layers, making the film not only ambivalent in its focus, but extremely convoluted, because for this film to be so unrelentingly uneven in the midst of such a mammoth, heavily layered cast and story, things are bound to get pretty convoluted, and it doesn't help that the film feels so very underdeveloped, which isn't to say that the gratuitously long, five minute opening credits sequence with a song that felt too sweeping - to the point of making you feel like we're looking at the closing credits - didn't hurt in letting you build up investment. Yeah, and if you think those are a lot of problems to simply lead back to merely glorification, then you don't know the half of it, because that glorification itself is only a piece of the massive puzzle of sentimentality that plagues this film through and through. The film is unrelentingly and often forcibly sentimental, so much so that it seems to be built on that sentimentality, so for the sentimentality to have hardly any versatility to it, that means that the film, by extension, gets wildly repetitive, something I could get over a little bit more - seeing as how "Gettysburg" suffered from a similar problem - were it not for the fact that the thing they're playing on a loop over and over again is, again, sentimentality that's so overbearingly saccharine that it only taints the dramatic waters. Whether it be the emotional resonance or - oh lord (so to speak) - the religious overtones, the dramatic angles of the film go heavily melodramatised by the sentimentality, occasionally on an amateur level, leaving this massive dramatic epic to go all but stripped of its dramatic subtlety and come off as somewhat, as put best by the consensus, "pompous", with a considerably more matter-of-fact overtone than the one found in "Gettysburg" exacerbating the arrogance. However, to call this film tedious, let alone bad, is something that I certainly can't get behind, because as wildly flawed as this film is, what it does get right, it nails so fabulously that, at times, it's easy to forget the missteps, for at the end of the day (No, seriously, this film will pretty much take up your day), in my opinion, this film delivers and rewards more often than it doesn't.
A returning Randy Edelman's and a joining John Frizzell's score work is, at times, rather cliche, yet at least these musicians have a good taste in cliche, for although their score is often misused to supplement the emotional manipulation that only further distances resonance, it's still grand and spirited with a fine beauty about it, which is something to be said about the cinematography. Kees Van Oostrum's cinematography may not be as relatively impressive as his, albeit somewhat dated, yet still lush work in "Gettysburg", yet there is the occasional breathtakingly colorful shot, as well as many a shot boasting sweep to capture the scope of the world, with a fine production and authentic locations augmenting an immersive feel that may not be quite as sharp as it was in "Gettysburg", yet is still palpable enough for you to feel the world, no matter how much Ron Maxwell's (Still sounds like the lead in a bad '80s cop show) faulty storytelling, especially when we get to the action sequences. While you can expect more battles in this film than in "Gettysburg", still don't expect that many at all throughout this mammoth epic, and expect what action there is to be as overlong and over authentic as it was in "Gettysburg", yet most of all, expect the action to still engage with its scope and spectacle, with rarely seen yet worth waiting for genuine emotional resonance powering the action with substance and weight to enthrall as it breaks down the horror of wartime battle as much as it breaks down the explosiveness of it. With all of my endless waves of complaints - headed by criticism towards the shoddy emotional resonance and absurd bloating of the mammoth and convoluted story story - and the simple fact that this film is more certainly not as entertaining as its predecessor, the story remains a fascinating and worthy one that may go generally betrayed by overambition and, well, almost as many flaws as subplots (You cannot begin to imagine how much that's saying something), yet is on the whole powered through general triumphant intrigue, which would not come close ringing as true as it does were it not for the performances. I be struck down if the extended cut didn't crowbar in a subplot with John Wilkes Booth (Yeah, because the theatrical cut didn't have enough overemphasized subplots) that, outside of giving us further insight into how the war and political issues affected notable men a ways away from the battlefield, served no terribly organic purpose and was understandably omitted, yet its restoration is still enjoyable, thanks greatly to the previously unseen Chris Conner, whose involvingly charismatic and subtle portrayal of the legendary actor and assassin explores a degree of depth and layers within Booth at this pivotal time which helped in bringing him to the gruesome intentions that his fulfilling has become much more recognzied in him than his once famed acting (Speaking of forced, melodramatised history lessons), which isn't to say that the aspect of good acting was incorporated into the film with Conner. In all brutal honesty, a couple of performances go tainted by much overbearingly histrionic material and context portrayal, with a few simply being pretty bad by their own (If nothing else makes this film look old fashion, then it's the women's "acting" abilities), yet most every character is consistent in being one-note, and yet there are quite a deal of performances that drown that out through charisma and a degree of depth, with a few performances that generally transcend the faultiness. The underwritten and underused, yet well-cast Robert Duvall still engages quite a bit for the few and far between moments in which he's present with that classic sobering presence of pride, sternness and nobility that defined Robert E. Lee, both as a human and a great leader, while the also tremendously underwritten Stephen Lang steals the show by working very well with what material he has to work with, sharply portraying Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's unflinching faith and competence as what it truly was: the mere surface of a vulnerable and haunted human being who the writers and director betray greatly through severe under exploration, yet Lang pays justice to with an involving soulfulness that helps in making him a worthy leader and partial savior of this mammoth mess.
In conclusion, the flaws are as mammoth as the film itself, with unrelenting bloating and excessive repetition that drive unevenness and a deal of aimlessness into the convoluted, unsubtle, often overly matter-of-fact and exorbitantly sentimenal, if not somewhat manipulative storyline being not much more than the highlights in a sea of the countless missteps that would render most any other film thoroughly unrewarding, yet the true magic behind this picture is how it phenomenally stands its grounds against all odds, supported by dashing style and a sweeping production, as well as quite a deal of genuine moments of actually effective resonance and intrigue to compliment a story that, despite its faults, remains worthy and fascinating, as well as further kept alive by a slew of charismatic, if not rather deep and distinctive performances that far outweight the problematic ones and help in ultimately leaving "Gods and Generals" to charge on... and on, and on, and on as a generally intriguing and ultimately rather satisfying mega-epic, regardless of its extreme faultiness.
3/5 - Good