Starring: Robin Wright, James McAvoy
Directed by: Robert Redford
The real conspiracy here seems to be Robert Redford’s plan (probably hatched with fellow Hollywood liberal Sean Penn) to make Robin Wright (formerly Penn) appear unattractive onscreen. After all, the two guys used to work together on Al Gore’s doomed TV network, Current TV (you know — the place you can no doubt find Keith Olbermann in the future).
The Conspirator uses American history as an excuse for Director Robert Redford to deliver a lecture on constitutional law. Didn’t he learn his lesson on the similarly themed (and similarly heavy-handed) Lions For Lambs, the flop film he starred in and directed in 2007?
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the movie?
The Conspirator tells the story of the Union-war-hero attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who is charged with defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Surratt runs the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his team of Confederate sympathizers (including Surratt’s son) concocted the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Mary Surratt is called to appear before a military tribunal in an attempt to hold someone accountable for the murder of the president. As with most current Hollywood historical films, this one seems to have been made with the purpose of providing thinly veiled commentary on contemporary times. The Conspirator, for all its detailed period facial hair and good guy/bad guy simplicity, does nothing to change this reality.
Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Lincoln’s assassination has been painstakingly reproduced and we are left with a couple hours of one-sided debate about constitutional law and the treatment of suspects in trials of national concern. Of course, let’s not forget that Mary Surratt was also an actual U.S. citizen. The movie is heavy on Surratt’s prisoner-of-war martyrdom, alongside far too many varying accents, and light on intriguing new ideas about the case. At its best it comes across as a film that might serve a high school history course. At its worst, it comes across as a product of a group of Hollywood liberals joining forces to make an op-ed movie at the expense of a compelling piece of American history.
So, did Mr. Redford really set out to make a boring film that questions the role that Mary Surratt played in the Lincoln assassination plot? Or is it all about the decision to move 9/11 trials from civilian courts to military tribunals? Of course it’s not entirely Robert Redford’s fault, so let’s give some credit to screenwriter James D. Solomon for stretching out a script that tries hard to convince us that we’re really watching the story of Surratt. You can tell, because it’s full of petticoats instead of burqas.
But with a lead character that does not even defend her own actions, it’s really a pointless endeavor. Throughout the film, I tried hard to find something intellectually stirring about the story, except Mary Surratt had so few lines that she had nothing valuable to say. Silent facial reactions don’t carry much weight in revisionist historical drama. If there were another side of the story, we certainly weren’t unearthing it here. And if there were no other side of the story (and she was, in fact, guilty), then justice was served with the trial’s outcome. With it’s unproven thesis, it’s difficult not to feel duped while watching The Conspirator.
James McAvoy tries his best to embody the youthful idealism the part demands. He is an actor who always inhabits whatever role he plays, but he cannot help that he’s been placed into a History Channel version of events. Although he cannot carry the film, he alone has the screen presence to at least drag it along until the end. In general, the film suffers from a sense of direction that is dismally pedestrian. Worst of all are the numerous courtroom scenes. They are stagey, with too many out-of-control extras proudly exhibiting fake gasps and canned laughter. They come across as melodramatic 19th-century thespians. The great American actor of that time, John Wilkes Booth, would not have worked well with such amateurs.
Worst lines in the movie:
–“You are keeping fear alive in place of ‘the rule of law’.”
–“Abandoning the Constitution is not the answer.”
–“In times of war, the law falls silent.”