A Copperhead Reviews Copperhead
It's not everyday that coming to a theater near you is a movie not only set in your home region but also sympathetically portraying your entire view of history and political philosophy. And I almost was unable to see Copperhead (2013), the story of a “York State” town divided by the conflict between a warmongering abolitionist and a peace Democrat in 1862. I had planned to see it at the Pittsford Cinema 9, but my niece was late arriving by plane on the day I had planned for. So, seeing the film involved a trip to Buffalo, appropriately passing through screenwriter Bill Kauffman’s hometown of Batavia, New York, to Eastern Hills Cinema, one of the four theaters at which it was still playing in the country. The missus and I had the whole theater to ourselves.
I had almost decided to wait for the film’s DVD release, based on The American Conservative's Daniel McCarthy's somewhat lukewarm review — Love Thy Neighbor, Even in War. I am glad I ignored that review and decided to see the film on the silver screen. It was worth every mile of the drive.
"Neither of these characters is very satisfying," says Mr. McCarthy’s of the films antagonists" "Jee Hagadorn, a Bible-bashing abolitionist, and Abner Beech, the titular Copperhead whose Bible is the Constitution." The former Mr. McCarthy calls "a caricature of a mad zealot" (but really, aren't all militant ideologues are ultimately “caricatures” in real life?). About the latter, the reviewer says "audiences not already sympathetic to his antiwar localist worldview won’t find its presentation conscience-pricking." Perhaps, but this viewer is not unbiased. This character was a 19th Century Ron Paul, and even bore a physical resemblance to a younger incarnation of the Pennsylvania-born peace-loving congressman. His principles – constitutionalism and hatred of war – were clearly defedend in the film.
The character I found most appealing was Ni, the son of the abolitionist. He among his group of friends seemed most like the young men I grew up with in Western New York, and his accent was the most authentic. Sure, his final speech was a bit preachy and movie-like, but it was spot on.
The screenplay is based on Harold Frederic’s novel, and the only weakness of the film might be that it had all of the melodrama one might expect of a novel of that period. Love blossoming between the children of two bitter rivals might not be the most original plot twist, but who cares? This is a movie about ideas. That abolitionism can be portrayed in anything less than a hagiographic light is revolutionary. As Esther, the lovely daughter of the movie’s abolitionist tells her father peace-loving rival, “I disagree with what you think, but I can understand why you think.” That might be the ultimate message of this movie.