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Gettysburg (Ridley Scott's) [DVD]
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History Channel documentary that revisits the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, arguably the turning point of the American Civil War. Fresh from a victory in Virginia in May 1863, General Robert E. Lee decided to embark upon the second phase of his invasion of the North. However, his Confederate army was met and defeated in Gettysburg by the Union forces under the command of General George Gordon Meade. This documentary, executively produced by Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony, takes an in-depth look at the battle, with an emphasis on how the average soldier on the ground would have experienced it.
The epic battle of Gettysburg, fought over a three-day period at the beginning of July 1863, was bloody, brutal, and bitter--making it ideally suited to the History Channel's testosterone-fueled documentary approach. Viewers familiar with offerings like Battles B.C., Patton 360, and multiple others will recognize this style: loud and kinetic, flashy and unsubtle, Gettysburg blends reenactments, photos, CGI (used to depict and dissect the weaponry that made the Civil War's body count so high in general, with some 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg alone), Sam Rockwell's macho voice-over narration, actors reading the reminiscences of the participants, and a variety of expert talking heads holding forth. For the most part, it works; historians and Civil War buffs have already noted some of the factual errors, important omissions, and other problems with the material, but those less versed in the details will come away from this 94-minute program (which was executive produced by noted directors Tony and Ridley Scott) with a good deal of information about the confrontation that inspired President Abraham Lincoln's immortal address, referenced near the end of the documentary. Typical of the History Channel, some of this information is delivered in hyperbolic, melodramatic fashion. Gettysburg was "the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere," while the cannons that blasted away at Gen. Robert E. Lee's men during the fateful attack known as Pickett's Charge was "the largest artillery barrage ever" in that same sphere; numerous other events are the biggest, the most iconic, the most important, and so on. The overheated writing does Gettysburg no favors, but director Adrian Moat and the other filmmakers' decision to focus on a variety of individuals on both sides was a wise one. Thus we learn about characters like Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles of the North, who had killed his wife's lover before the war and successfully used "the first plea of temporary insanity in U.S. history" to win acquittal; Pvt. Amos Humiston, another Yank, who died on the streets of the Pennsylvania town with nothing to identify him except a photo of his three sons; Confederate Lt. Gen. Dick Ewell, who had vowed revenge after losing a leg earlier in the war; Col. James Wallace, a Marylander who was both a Union officer and slave owner; and numerous others. In the end, it's these portraits that help distinguish the program from the many, many others of its ilk. --Sam Graham
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It's done on an ambitious scale - it looks like what it claims to be, a presentation of small elements of a major battle, and it gives an overview of the battle which is of wider scope than anything I've seen before. Photography is excellent, as you would expect, though I became fatigued by the relentless slo-mo close ups of exploding bullet wounds.
I'm really not certain why I found that it grated. I was not offended by anything as important as the cap badges(!), but the technique of switching between the accounts of the personal view (the selected individuals used to illustrate the story) and the high-level grand plan view leaves a gap in the middle which makes it hard to follow - I would have liked to see more of a narrative at divisional level as well. The blood and gore is probably over-done - we get the idea very quickly that war is horribly brutal, and the constant focus on this aspect gets uncomfortably close to obsession at times. The talking heads were not particularly interesting - they could have been anyone, and most of what they added was well known or obvious anyway. I think mostly it is the over-earnestness of the commentary - moronically explaining "he is now in terrible danger" and so forth - yes, we had sort of picked up on that as well.
I'm left unsure what the film was trying to do, if only to justify the big budget. I don't think it said anything new about Gettysburg, I dont think the micro vs macro view idea works very well, and the gory presentation tells us that war is not pleasant, and then explains it over and over again for the benefit of slower viewers. It didn't really make it as education, and as entertainment it is very much inferior to the Gettysburg film from the Gods & Generals trilogy. I was disappointed - I wanted it to be better than that.
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