Over a span of three months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.
The story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is a powerful and inspirational piece of Civil War history. Authorized by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 54th Massachusetts was the second African-American regiment to fight for the Union Army. Despite facing hardships from both the North and South, the 54th persevered and played significant roles in several key battles.
“Glory” chronicles the formation, training, and service of the 54th Massachusetts under the leadership of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The son of prominent abolitionist parents, Shaw (played here by Matthew Broderick) agreed to take command of the all-black 54th and prepare them for battle. The South gets wind of the Union’s recruitment of black soldiers and issues an order declaring they be taken back into slavery and the white officers who lead them killed.
And it’s not like the 54th has it easy on the Union side. The troops find themselves looked down on by white soldiers and officers, denied shoes and uniforms, paid less because of the color of their skin, even exploited to work as laborers rather than soldiers. Inspired by their passion and driven by their resilience, Shaw fights the prejudiced military traditions and an even more biased chain of command to give his soldiers the opportunity to fight and for what they believe in.
From the very start the casting of Matthew Broderick feels off. It isn’t an inherently bad performance on his part nor does the writing let him down. He just doesn’t feel right for the role and his portrayal of Shaw doesn’t give us a firm idea of who his character is. Is he weak? Is he strong? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he in over his head? You’re never quite sure where to land on him and Broderick doesn’t seem to have the personality or gravitas to help us figure it out.
It’s a much different story when we are with the soldiers of the 54th. That’s when the performances absolutely shine. Tops on list is Denzel Washington who gives a star-making turn as Private Silas Trip, a straight-shooting realist who ran away from his Tennessee slave owners at the age 12. Washington won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role and commands every scene he’s in. I would have given him the award for one scene alone where he is being disciplined for breaking a military rule. It’s powerful stuff and charged with raw, unflinching emotion.
We also get the sturdy and always dependable Morgan Freeman. He plays former gravedigger John Rawlins who is well respected among the troops. Andre Braugher is excellent as the booksmart Thomas Searles. He’s a Northern free man and childhood friend of Shaw who has the will but may not be physically equipped for battle. And Jihmi Kennedy is really good playing a big-hearted but naïve young enlistee.
The film is directed by Edward Zwick in what was only his second film. It was written by Kevin Jarre whose previous film (“Rambo: First Blood Part II”) couldn’t have been more different. Yet the two combine to craft an illuminating picture that is both surprising intimate and strikingly cinematic. Add in Freddie Francis’ glorious Oscar-winning cinematography and the (mostly) superb score from the late and great James Horner.
By the time “Glory” gets to its gripping Charleston Harbor finale I was thoroughly invested in these men who make up the heart of this remarkable story. The final 15 minutes pack a visceral and emotional punch that only works because of the great character work that preceded it. There are moments where the sentimentality gets a little heavy and it would have been nice if Zwick and Jarre would have explored multiple perspectives. But those things don’t strip “Glory” of its value. It’s still a moving piece of historical drama and an evocative human story of men whose fight wasn’t strictly reserved for the battlefield.
VERDICT – 4 STARS