Jeff Daniels did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Gettysburg.
Daniels instantly establishes something that contributes so much to his work, which is his approach to portraying Chamberlain. He does not present him as this man of the military, which is fitting having been a college professor before the war, but even more so seems so much of a man than a period figure. He never seems to be that to merely represent something, as Daniels performance feels so lived in and authentic even with that overgrown mustache needed to match the historical portrait of the man. Daniels in the early scenes brings this lightness to his performance, that does not stem from a lack of understanding for the material, but rather an effective realization of the state of the person. Daniels shows a man technically living his life, though his life is an unorthodox circumstance. Now in this approach Daniels adds so much more to the role by this. Daniels brings these nice touches that he delivers in such a casual yet wholly authentic way, such as his humorous attempts to get his brother not to refer to him as Laurence. Daniels is great in this moment as he does no show the unease in him stemming from trying to be some tough guy soldier, but rather just so earnestly presents a guy attempting to fulfill his position properly.
In his first scenes we see him deal with the problem of the deserters, and I love how Daniels handles the scene. As he speaks with the man Daniels actually doesn't express the utmost command as he deals with the man, instead portraying a man of a different nature trying to gently get through the situation. In the scene where Laurence speaks with the deserters' spokesman, who names his amount of engagements as well asking Chamberlain his own amount, the humble way Daniels delivers the admission of "less" so effectively realizes the Laurence's modesty. In order to deal with the deserters though Laurence attempts to encourage the men to continue fighting essentially by telling them his own purpose in the war. This is an essential moment not only for Daniels's performance but for the overall film as it gives life to pivotal element in the civil war that is virtually left out due to the constrictions of the narrative. That element being slavery. Daniels in the scene so beautifully renders Laurence argument for the cause to end slavery. It is actually a very quiet and calm yet powerful speech that Daniels gives, so eloquently verbalizing not only his distress towards the institution but also his passion for ending it in order to free men. The majority of the deserters end up joining with Chamberlain, and it is Daniels's performance that makes that result absolutely convincing.
Again though so much of the strength of Daniels's work comes in the quieter moments, and something I love is the way he crafts the relationships with both Howell's and Conway's characters. With Howell, Daniels is terrific in that awkwardness he brings of the older brothers attempting to look out for his younger brother, while trying to be his commander at the same time. Daniels is great in realizing the difficulty in that and helps to suggest how their relationship was before the war, with Thomas perhaps expecting too much from his older brother with Laurence possibly giving his younger brother a bit too much leeway, yet behind it all there is a very assumed love of such a relationship.A different relationship though is with the hardened vet Kilrain. Daniels and Conway's chemistry is even stronger in a way than with Howell, as the two actors convey so honestly this mutual respect the two have one another. It is often stated yet so perfectly assumed in the way Daniels shows just the way he listens in their scenes together. Daniels shows the way that Chamberlain is really taking in what the man has to say and so values not only his experience but also their friendship. It is all so effortless though as you can see the two have spent some time serving together in their ease and warmth in their interactions.
The middle section of the film ends up being the pivotal part that Chamberlain plays in the battle, which is on the second day where he must defend a hill known as Little Round top. The hill is essential to preventing the South from flanking the Union army. This engagement is the strongest sequence in the film, and Daniels's work is one of the major reasons why. Daniels throughout the scenes always so effectively continues to show this man, this professor of etiquette, in this dire situation as he must lead against the onslaught of southern soldiers attempting to take the hill from the Union army. There is nothing taken lightly in this situation as Daniels brilliantly realizes the wear of the battle not only in terms of the physical degradation but also the mental degradation of the fight. Again though he's also a brother in the situation, and one of the most moving moments in the film for me is the anguish Daniels brings in Laurence, brief as it must be given the battle, as he has his brother plug a hole in the defense. Daniels is incredible as he completely shows a commander trying to keep his troops together, a soldier trying to keep himself alive, and an older brother's terrible concern for his sibling he cares dearly for. Daniels makes the distress feel so real, especially in his harrowing scream of "Tom!" when it appears his brother is about to be shot. So much of the intensity in the sequence comes from Daniels's devoted performance, that never allows a single moment to lay flat. He internalizes all of it into his performance. It doesn't end there as Laurence must make a daring decision to lead a charge in order to defeat the southern forces after he runs out of ammunition. Daniels is downright amazing in the scene as he makes it more than simply a man taking the charge when he most needs to. Daniels realizes that of course, but throughout the moment he also keeps alive a real fear of a man who's not entirely sure of his action but has no other choice. Daniels makes it a particularly rousing moment though because he earns it so much be finding Laurence's inexperience in the moment making the victory all the greater. Daniels only brings this home all the more in the relief and just the right amount of joy Daniels expresses in this success. The pain of the battle is completely embodied by Daniels work yet he makes the triumph all the greater, as this is just a normal man accomplishing something he perhaps wasn't even aware that he could do. Again the whole sequence is made something truly remarkable through Daniels's portrayal of a real man going through every second of the attack.
Now that sequence is when Daniels leads the film, but he continues to appear in the final day of the battle which focuses upon the South's last effort to advance. Daniels has a few key moments, that have a great impact through everything else in his performance that already helped to establish. Daniels in these scenes again wears the battle, not only in his direct leg injury, but also in the haunting way he presents the horrible experience of it all even now that he is given a "break". The loss of that attack technically is not finished though as evidenced when his brother reports on Killrain's condition, who was shot twice during the battle, which is to reveal that the man died. Although the death is off screen it is the most heartbreaking one in the film, Daniels devastating in his reaction, showing just how torn up Laurence is by the news, and conveys just how much Laurence cared for his friend. His simple delivery of "yeah" to acknowledge his friend is all that is needed, as Daniels infuses it with such honest emotion. In the end Laurence's final scenes in the film are simple yet fitting entirely to the character, and does not feel underwhelming due to all that Daniels brought beforehand. The final sendoff being but an embrace between the Chamberlain brothers after they have survived the events of the entire battle. It is poignant and all that is needed. This is an exceptional turn by Jeff Daniels. I love the performance as it is such nuanced and powerful depiction of one man within a great war.