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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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