At its best, the new HBO movie based on Dee Brown’s 1971 nonfiction best-seller, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee — which chronicled through Indian eyes the policies of governmental treachery and murder that were crucial to white America’s westward expansion in the 19th century — is a compact distillation of that book’s grave message: One side’s Manifest Destiny is surely another’s Manifest Tragedy. It’s there in the chillingly ironic opening shot that summarizes the historical tipping point: General Custer’s 1876 defeat at Little Bighorn by the Sioux, whose land — supposedly protected by a treaty eight years earlier — was now being unceremoniously re-raided. (Reminder to future encroaching empires: Check for gold before shrugging off the real estate.)
An omnipresent overhead camera majestically tracks the scene from a village of Indian men riding off to join their resisting brethren, then pans over trees and rivers, and comes to rest on the dusty main action of Custer’s hopelessly outnumbered cavalry in the center of an awesome, fast, ever-widening circle of Sioux warriors. That day the Sioux were surely — as this exhilarating image connotes — a hurricane of fed-up avengers, but it’s also impossible not to see this striking, God’s-view swirl as a foreshadowing whirlpool, one that would eventually lead the Indian wars to a wretched close with a cavalry massacre of Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee in 1890. And with that ended a vigorous new country’s claim to any kind of moral rectitude.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What would the U.S. response to the Sioux victory at Little Bighorn be? Cut to a political/military powwow between powerful bearded white men: President Ulysses S. Grant (played by Republican Oval Office hopeful Fred D. Thompson), Indian sympathizer — read “civilizer” — Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) and kill-’em-all proponent General William Tecumseh Sherman (Colm Feore), who leads one to believe we might get the Deadwood take on things when he starts things off with this assessment of Custer’s attack acumen: “The man was a fuckin’ idiot.”
Iraq is even invoked when Sherman’s dialogue has him wondering if Dawes wants to “cut and run.” (Or does that fall under the “ripped from the headlines” ethos of Dick Wolf, who produced the movie?) The mediating efforts of Dawes prevail, however, and he trudges back to renegotiate with Sioux leader Red Cloud (played by Gordon Tootoosis) over use of his people’s land. At the new ceremony, after a Christian priest prays to God, Red Cloud wryly asks if it’s “the same God you deceived when you made treaty with us and broke it?”
Although it would be cruel to call the Lakotas “fuckin’ idiots” for assuming peace would come by signing another treaty with the U.S., the consequences of the Indians’ woeful attempts to abide the whims of a governmental authority intent on eradicating their culture are what make for the most assuredly painful parts of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Herded onto reservations and stripped of their communal oneness with the natural wildness of the earth — they were forced to own acreage, told to farm crops and directed to go to church — they became depressed welfare cases, dependent on rations of food (thanks to unfarmable land or drought) and exposed to white men’s diseases.
In one of the more humiliating details that writer Daniel Giat and director Yves Simoneau depict in the two-and-a-half-hour movie, the great Sioux resistance leader Sitting Bull (played with quiet force by August Schellenberg) — who finally acquiesced to reservation life after a debilitating exile in wintry Canada — watches with dumbstruck sadness for his people as his son, now an agency policeman, embarks on a government-approved pursuit of meat: chasing a malnourished cow around an enclosed corral. The hunter has effectively been gathered.
Someone else is watching with disillusionment: real-life schoolteacher Elaine Goodale (played by alabaster beauty Anna Paquin), who quickly writes her husband, Charles Eastman (Adam Beach) — a half-Sioux who studied at Dartmouth and became a doctor and Indian-affairs advocate — about the problems at Standing Rock reservation. The inclusion of Goodale’s point of view and the love story between her and Eastman, who, although an important historical figure, is not a part of Brown’s book, is vaguely problematic in that it reflects a disturbing tradition of mass-entertainment films about nonwhite races being partly driven by white — or, in the case of Eastman, assimilated-and-acting-on-behalf-of-white — characters. (Think Dances With Wolves, Dangerous Minds, Mississippi Burning or any movie Hollywood’s made about Africa.)
Considering what made Brown’s book such a revisionist revelation upon its release — the overdue novelty of steadfastly hewing to the poetic words and bitter remembrances of sympathetic Native Americans, after years of popular history depicting them as savages — this is a sticky element for anybody attempting to faithfully evoke the book’s we-were-screwed importance. Of the three prongs in the crisscrossing narrative — Sitting Bull, Dawes and Eastman — only Sitting Bull’s scenes feel like they capture the ugly dehumanization Brown was after. Whenever the focus is Eastman, who goes from well-intentioned policy collaborator with Dawes to reservation doctor, and watches firsthand how America’s ramshackle recruitment of Indians toward a “civilized” way of life is actually killing them, the movie develops a curious remove, despite Beach’s best efforts to communicate anguish. (You just don’t worry as much for the degreed doctor as you do for a Sioux uprooted from everything he knows.)
At least, dramatizing Dawes and his tone-deaf attempts to deal with an increasingly embittered, unimpressed Sioux gives context to the saga of unkept promises and festering distrust: With each new oily land-deal offer, the movie starts to feel like Indian history as rendered by David Mamet. Especially stinging are the exchanges between Sitting Bull and Standing Rock reservation agency head James McLaughlin (played by the great J.K. Simmons), who seems to take cruel pleasure in disrespecting the proud, revered chief. These scenes hit home that it wasn’t always a gunshot or saber blow that bled these original Americans. Whenever Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee clings to the anger and sorrow of the subjugated, that’s when it has a seething power.
BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE| HBO | Sun., May 27, 9 p.m., with multiple repeats
Question or comment? Email firstname.lastname@example.org