Friday, April 15, 2011

Movie Review: The Conspirator

The Conspirator ***
Directed by: Robert Redford.
Written By: James D. Solomon.
Starring: James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton), Tom Wilkinson (Reverdy Johnson), Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt), Danny Huston (Joseph Holt), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker), Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston), Johnny Simmons (John Surratt), Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), James Badge Dale (William Hamilton), Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann), Norman Reedus (Lewis Payne), Stephen Root (John Lloyd), Chris Bauer (Major Smith), Colm Meaney (David Hunter).

Filmmakers often use incidents in the past to comment on the present. Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is about the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, but it is impossible not to think about the War on Terror when watching it. His uses the past to illuminate the present – and he has also crafted a finely made historical drama to boot.

The film stars James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a hero for the Union during the Civil War, who returns injured from the war, and wanting to resume his career as a lawyer. Like everyone else in the North, he is shocked and sickened when John Wilkes Booth assassinates Abraham Lincoln, and is among the many calling for the blood of not only Booth, but on those who helped him. The Lincoln assassination was only one part of a multi-pronged plan by Booth and his co-conspirators, who also wanted to murder the Vice President, and the Secretary of State, among others. Booth was the only one who succeeded. So it is with great reluctance that Aiken agrees to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman charged with conspiring to carry out the plot. He only does it because his boss, Senator Revedy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), forces him to do it. Johnson believes in the rule of law, and is horrified that the conspirators will not be tried in civilian court, but by a military tribunal, handpicked by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), and will not even be allowed to testify in their own defense. But Johnson is also smart enough to know that Surratt has no chance if he were to defend her himself – he is an old time Southerner, who although he was loyal to the Union during the Civil War, will be seen as too sympathetic to her and perhaps even her cause. If she has any chance, she has to be defended by someone like Aiken – someone whose loyalty could never be questioned – or so he thinks anyway.

Aiken doesn’t want the case. Like everyone else, he thinks she is guilty and deserves whatever punishment she has coming to her, but he really doesn’t have a choice. It’s only gradually as he gets to know Surratt, and see how paltry the State’s case against her really is. It is essentially built upon the testimony of two men – neither of whom seems to be an overly reliable witness. But Surratt refuses to help Aiken put on the defense that he wants to – which is essentially to blame her son John for all the things they say Mary did. John is the one conspirator who has slipped through the grasp of the Union, who now desperate to hold someone responsible, has turned to Mary – whose only crime that they can really prove is that he is a Southerner, who while running a boarding house in Washington, allowed Booth to stay there.

Watching the film, it is impossible not to think of the current situation, in which suspected terrorists are held without trial, and many want them tried by military tribunals instead of civilian courts. There is a lot of talk in the film about what they were fighting the Civil War for, if it was not to protect the Constitution, and the citizens rights – even during times of war, and when it is hard to do so. It is clear where Redford comes down on this issue.

The film is impeccably made, with a wonderful eye for period detail – the costumes, production design and cinematography certainly add to the period feel. Although Redford’s goal was to obviously make a film relating to the policies of today, he hasn’t strayed too far from the historical record in making his film. The performances are strong as well, but to a certain extent, all the characters other than McAvoy’s are fairly one note – they establish their characters early, and do not change. That isn’t to say that Wright doesn’t deliver an emotional performance as the ever loyal mother, or that Kevin Kline shouldn’t be praised for taking what could have the villain of the piece, and making him, if not sympathetic, than at least understandable (he truly does believe in what he is doing), just that they don’t really develop much per se. Redford is more interested in the story, and the modern parallels to do much on that front.

Overall though, The Conspirator is a smart historical drama – the type of film that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make. It is intelligent, well directed and well acted, and really, what else could you want?

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