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Conspirator, The

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // April 15, 2011
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Anrdoezrs]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted April 15, 2011 | E-mail the Author

As an actor, producer, and director, Robert Redford's contribution to film is marked by close, thoughtful preparation, detailed pre-production, and polished execution. Although no one's filmography is flop-free, Redford's best films are marked by tight scripts, excellent casting, and a shot-by-shot flow that suggests precise storyboarding and pre-visualization. On The Conspirator, Redford serves as director and one of eight credited producers, and the surprise of the film is its sloppiness and the feeling that the entire project was rushed through production. The Conspirator suffers from an underdeveloped script, miscasting, and a perfunctory visual style. Nothing about the film suggests the involvement of Robert Redford - or any director with decent narrative sense or a judicious eye. The Conspirator is a flavorless political statement in the guise of a historical drama. It could have been directed by anyone - or, for that matter, by a committee of dullards.

The Conspirator's fact-based plot couldn't be more promising as the basis for a riveting film: Following an opening sequence that shows the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theater, along with the attempted murder of Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson, the film tells the story of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Civil War veteran and lawyer newly employed by Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland (Tom Wilkinson). Johnson arranges the defense of the conspirators who plotted Lincoln's assassination, one of whom is a woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Surratt owned a boarding house where the conspirators were known to have met, but her role in the conspiracy itself is hazy at best. Johnson tasks the reluctant Aiken with defending Surratt, who proves to be an opaque figure that refuses to readily explicate the nature of her role and her relationship to the conspirators. Aiken encounters further opacity in the form of the politically-expedient but extra-legal military tribunal that tries the conspirators, a body of men who are there not to analyze but to condemn. They serve at the pleasure of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who wants to punish the accused to help heal the nation's grief.

The Conspirator feels like a made-for-TV quickie with a larger budget. Its narrative is rushed, first and foremost. Every scene feels hurried and false, as though a large story has been assigned to a narrow time-slot, forcing arbitrary last-minute shortcuts. We are hustled through an un-thrilling depiction of the assassination, which sets up the film's dramatic situation. Surratt's quandary is established not with a sense of historicity, but with the dry tone that usually accompanies a finger-wagging lesson being impressed upon a naive or naughty audience. The parallels between the incidents portrayed in The Conspirator are too close to events occurring in our own era. That doesn't mean that they don't bear examination; it means that a film based upon those incidents is going to have to fight not to look cheesy, forced, and obvious. The Conspirator doesn't fight hard enough.

Although he's the protagonist, we don't know much about Aiken's interior life - even though, during the film, he undergoes a serious intellectual and moral challenge. He is a Civil War veteran who desperately wants to see the conspirators punished, and at first he unquestioningly assumes Surratt's guilt. Despite a deep desire to see her hang with the rest, Aiken begins to suspect that the trial is not Constitutional. Yet we don't know what he's thinking or feeling, especially regarding the transition he experiences. I don't think this is McAvoy's fault, although I will say that his entire performance seems cribbed from the Tom Cruise Playbook of Mannerism and Line Reading. It's the script's fault. It's unacceptable that a highly conflicted protagonist should remain so veiled, when his thought process and emotional experience is really what the film wants to be about. Other characters are given more careful exploration, both by the script and by the actors who portray them, particularly Surratt, whose screen time and dialogue is relatively minimal, but whose presence, in the form of Wright, is dominant.

But the movie is too bogged down in earnest political philosophizing to ever become a truly character-driven drama. The movie's argument is clear within its first half-hour: military tribunals thwart the rights of US citizens. As post-9/11 Americans, we are familiar with this argument and the issues that surround it. The parallels are obvious. A feature film that deals with political topics has the opportunity to play out ideas in a dramatic fashion, illustrating abstractions and principles in terms of human lives and relationships. But The Conspirator doesn't go past the level of chat show talking points: military tribunals are wrong; Surratt may have been wrongly executed; Aiken was transformed by his realization that Constitutional rights belong to every citizen. These concepts are easily summarized, as I have just done. It doesn't take a movie to explicate them.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.



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