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Lincoln and Lee at Antietam: The Cost of Freedom
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by David Cornelius

"The clunky title is the least of our worries."
2 stars

If there is such a thing as Civil War porn, then “Lincoln and Lee At Antietam: The Cost of Freedom” might be it. It is, in overkill, everything Civil War buffs want, from intricately detailed explanations of every single move every major officer made in connection with the Battle of Antietam; to trivia chunks that explain, say, how the death toll of the battle was greater than the death toll of several other wars combined; to footage of hard-working Civil War reenactors doing their darnedest to bring to life the events the film wished to discuss. This is the perfect movie for anyone who owns more than ten books on the Civil War, the perfect movie who subscribes to the History Channel specifically for “Civil War Journal,” the perfect movie for anyone who gets noticeably excited over hearing that it’s narrated by the guy who directed “Gods and Generals.”

But is it a perfect movie - or, for that matter, just a decent movie - for anyone else? The answer, regretfully, is no. The documentary, from director/producer Robert Child, is a fairly amateurish production, with overly (sometimes laughably) clunky reenactments filling up far too much screen time, right along side a parade of cheesy Ken Burns-lite readings of letters written during the war, as read by what seems to be a group of community theater players who are trying out their nifty new accents. Rounding out the film is an overload of talking head shots, almost all of which feature the same three or four scholars, gentlemen who may be fountains of information but aren’t really that exciting to watch over and over and over again. It quickly becomes painfully obvious that instead of doing any comprehensive research and find a new take on a thoroughly studied part of history, Child thinks it’ll be OK to merely point his camera at a couple of guys who know lots of stuff and who sure love to chatter; he’ll fill in the gaps with video of a guy in a Lee costume later.

The facts themselves can be quite fascinating - Child ties in the battle’s importance to the Emancipation Proclamation, for example - but there’s just no workable way of getting to them here. Child, with no knack for editing or pacing, lets the talking heads ramble on for far too long, and he relies on cheaply staged recreations to tell the story. Child is looking for shortcuts in his documentary presentation, but shabby shot-on-video clips of a fake Lincoln sitting in a tent is not the way to go.

The most obvious example of Child’s lack of editorial control comes when the narrator, Ronald F. Maxwell (the aforementioned “Gods and Generals” director; he also made “Gettysburg”), appears briefly in front of the camera as yet another talking head, never mind that wheeling the narrator in front of the camera comes across as nothing more than a sign of Child running out of people to interview. In his discussion, Maxwell blathers on about a sequence from his unseen director’s cut of “Gods and Generals,” a scene which takes place at Antietam. Maxwell means to discuss the events of that battle, but before he gets to it, Child is happy to let him go on and on about how those events were in his movie, and blah blah blah. These remarks could have easily been edited out - but Child keeps them in, perhaps out of fear of cutting off a mentor, perhaps because he thought viewers would appreciate the filler, perhaps because he’s not certain how to properly make a documentary.

But as I said before, those of you who go crazy over all things Civil War will probably find some value in “Lincoln and Lee” - especially if you’re the sort who eats up all those “Civil War Minutes”-type releases that specialize in reenactment footage overload. The facts, after all, are fascinating, no matter how shabbily presented they are. Those with only a minor interest in American history will do best to ignore this and hunt down some of the more professional studies of the battle.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14281&reviewer=392
originally posted: 03/25/06 11:00:37
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USA
  31-Jan-2006 (NR)
  DVD: 31-Jan-2006

UK
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