Alyssa Rosenberg finds the “Copperhead” trailer problematic because it doesn’t mention slavery:
The trailer for the upcoming Civil War drama Copperhead conveniently doesn’t mention that the movement its titular characters were affiliated with wanted the Union to make a peace with the Confederacy that would allow for the preservation of slavery, and that it was naive enough to believe the Confederacy would come back to the Union on its own terms. But given the pop culture trope of the sympathetic or victimize Confederate, I’m not actually surprised that a Civil War setting is one of the few ways we could get a movie about people who have been dramatically marginalized in our political conversations and even in civil society: war resisters.
We’ve become very comfortable lionizing the risks soldiers take on the battlefield, in part because those celebrations feel like a way of paying back people who are willing to experience extreme danger and the trauma of killing other people on our behalf. But we’re still reluctant, apparently, to treat people who try and fail to keep us out of wars…
I have a hard time understanding the ideology that demands road signs in film trailers denoting whether or not the people depicted stood on the right or wrong side of history. Having seen the movie several times now, my impression of its portrayal of slavery, or rather of what people in a small hamlet in upstate New York thought of it, since there is neither a slave nor a battle anywhere in the film, is that it’s appropriately nuanced. The (perhaps misplaced) belief in peaceful reunification is addressed in a pretty smart way, for example. I think it’s fair on the whole—though Rosenberg will have to see the movie to judge that—but it definitely wouldn’t have fit into a two-minute trailer.
The trailer is certainly not “hiding the uncomfortable truth” about anything. Rosenberg seems to think this is a movie about vindicating the Copperhead movement, which it assuredly is not. “Copperhead” is a label that is applied by others to the Beech family, the main subjects of the film; it’s not something they identify with. One of their workers with similar views nearly starts a fight over being called one. The only way the Beech family is “affiliated” with a broader movement is in voting for Democrats. Rosenberg finds this a “confusing” use of language but it’s not exactly unusual, and the title is taken from the novella on which the film is based.
I’m knee-deep in transcribing interviews with “Copperhead” director Ron Maxwell and screenwriter (and TAC columnist!) Bill Kauffman for a piece in the upcoming print issue about the movie, so you’ll have to wait for some more fleshed-out thoughts. But I’ll say a few things about Rosenberg’s larger point, that we should be making movies about other pacifist resistors instead.
This seems like a strange thing to say about what is, if I’m not mistaken, the first feature film about Northerners who opposed the war in question. And it betrays a certain ignorance of both Kauffman and Maxwell’s work. I share her concern that the film industry is geared towards lionizing the military at the expense of stories about the peaceful. So shouldn’t we be applauding a director who’s built a career on Civil War epics producing and directing a movie about the people who opposed it?
Moreover, “Copperhead” is completely of a piece with Kauffman’s career-spanning project of resurrecting American anti-war, anti-expansion populist movements:
For much of my career, if that’s not too stately a term to apply to what has been a shambling affair, I’ve been guided by a remark of the great New Left historian William Appleman Williams, a patriot of Atlantic, Iowa: “So let us think about the people who lost.” Those people have ranged from anti-expansionists to defenders of small rural schools to those who say “No!” to war. Antiwar Northerners, like those Southern Unionists who did not want to break up the union over slavery, complicate the Accepted Narrative. The more fervent among them were called “Copperheads,” after the poisonous snake. (Dissenters from wars and other massive state projects are typically dehumanized.)
If it’s other pacifists that we should be remembering, what about America First, another maligned political group Kauffman has done great work on? Would a trailer for a movie about them have to mention the anti-semitism with which the movement as a whole is so often erroneously charged?
One final point. I’m suspicious that what Rosenberg describes as the “the pop culture trope of the sympathetic or victimize [sic] Confederate” these days more often means the politically correct objection to portraying Confederates as anything other than bug-eyed Calvin Candie sadists. This is the mentality that got Maxwell, who hails from New Jersey, dubbed a “neo-Confederate” by the SPLC for portraying Confederate officers as honorable people in “Gods and Generals,” a movie that, for all its faults, was a long way from moonlight-and-magnolias nostalgia.
I fully expect the same slur to come out in relation to “Copperhead.” Though I hope she revisits her opinion once she’s seen the movie, Rosenberg’s reflexive take certainly sets the tone. We like movies about pacifists, but not movies about pacifists who opposed wars we support.