Stephen Lang has often played supercilious hucksters, most memorably in ”Manhunter,” where he was the tabloid news rat who got epoxied to Francis Dolarhyde’s wheelchair. In Gods and Generals, Lang is hidden beneath a pillowy dark beard, and he speaks in rich low tones of such lustrous depth – the music of Southern courtliness – that he sounds like the bass end of a church organ.
Lang is Thomas ”Stonewall” Jackson, hero of the Confederacy, a general who talks to God as often as he addresses his fellow soldiers. Jackson’s faith is so strong that he has no fear on the battlefield, and yet Lang doesn’t play him as a fanatic. Acting with glittery eyes, he makes Jackson ruthless in war and, at the same time, the literate soul of patriotic valor – defender of the South as the last bastion of freedom.
Lang carves Jackson in flesh and blood, but in almost every other way, the 3-hour-and-35-minute ”Gods and Generals” is a trial to sit through: stiff, ponderous, fluttering in its ”poetry,” and crudely simplistic as an apologia for the Confederate ideology. A prequel to the 1993 ”Gettysburg,” ”Gods and Generals,” too, was executive-produced by Ted Turner, who backed it financially. It’s fine for a film to recognize that there were noble men in the South, but when Jackson speaks of the need to defend his beloved Virginia against ”the triumph of commerce – the banks, factories,” the sentiment rings empty and more than a little ironic given that this is a $60 million film bankrolled by a billionaire.
As history, ”Gods and Generals” is a whitewash, literally; it takes pains to depict Jackson as the best friend a black cook ever had, as if that ameliorated the South’s treatment of slaves. It would be nice to say that the battles are powerful, but instead they are draped in Civil War-buff ”authenticity” without so much as a drop of carnage. Except for Lang, that’s the movie: bloodless and false.