Top

film

Stories

 

The Conspirator: Another Dull History Lesson From Robert Redford

<i>The Conspirator</i>: Another Dull History Lesson From Robert Redford
Roadside Attractions

Set in the months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, The Conspirator follows the consequences of the fatal shot at Ford’s Theatre—specifically, the trial of Mary Surratt, Catholic, 42, and the owner of a Washington, D.C., boarding house, who was presented before a military tribunal as the den mother in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.

Robin Wright plays Surratt, but, seen through the limited vantage of her defense, she’s not the film’s star. Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) decides that no Southerner can represent Surratt without compromising the case, so hands her over to Union Army vet Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). All of 28 and vainly trying to pass as older under a sparse, reddish beard, dubious ex-blue-belly Aiken becomes convinced that Surratt’s trial is nothing short of a railroading, headed toward judicial murder on the gallows.

Square-jawed and knotty-fingered, with the look of having been dragged around by life, Wright fits her part and period, but McAvoy’s Aiken is the one who carries, and stumbles with, the film. Aiken is chosen to represent Surratt in part for his wartime credentials—he’s introduced bleeding on a History Channel battlefield—but nothing in McAvoy’s pushover peevishness suggests knowledge of command or the burdensome memory of war. This would matter little if there was any transference from Surratt, if Aiken absorbed her toughness through their partnership, but such gravitas never arrives. The story is one of idealistic youth speaking truth to power, with Kevin Kline’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton the archetypal cynical insider, but after Aiken’s closing argument, you’re mostly stirred to watch Danny Huston’s prosecuting attorney break him.

The gallow end: Wright marches forth.
Roadside Attractions
The gallow end: Wright marches forth.

Showing a government system as it responds to an attack, The Conspirator is Robert Redford’s first film since the awful—and similarly themed—Lions for Lambs (2007). Redford, never the subtlest of dialectic filmmakers, has now become the browbeating professor he played in Lions, dotting rhetorical i’s for the audience in every scene (“In times of war, the law falls silent”).

His latest lecture is the debut production of the American Film Company (motto: “Witness History”), created by Chicago entrepreneur and Cubs owner Joe Ricketts to bring our past accurately to the screen—an endeavor that, on paper at least, sounds worthy. Since Raoul Walsh’s John Wilkes Booth blew flash powder down Lincoln’s collar in Birth of a Nation, the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination have been dramatized surprisingly infrequently: Virginia Gregg played Surratt in an Ida Lupino–directed episode of The Joseph Cotten Show from 1956, while John Ford attempted a posthumous exoneration of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor accused of conspiracy after setting Booth’s broken leg, in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).

The Conspirator, though, fails to blow dust off its period. The historically obscure figure of Aiken is hardly vivified. Courtroom scenes are stagey, with cued-up gasps and canned laughter. Redford shows some flair with assassinations and executions, but the most done to enliven the dialogue is having Aiken and Johnson talk while the latter is using the bathroom. After the first reel, there’s rarely any sense of a larger polis outside the museum-room interiors, uniformly lit by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel in clear, streaming shafts of perpetual-noon sunlight. The film is a burdensome two hours, even as some scenes seem to have gone missing, like the brushed-past plot point with Shea Whigham as a witness for the defense suborned by the prosecution, wasted along with Alexis Bledel and Evan Rachel Wood.

Convicted through, essentially, a single testimony, Surratt was hanged with three others in July 1865. There is a famous photo in which you can see her swinging to their left, bound up in a black dress. Mary Surratt and Sam Mudd were both, perhaps, innocent—this is beyond movies to prove. But Redford’s dudgeon and bludgeon is a mere classroom aid next to Ford’s mythical-historical consciousness and redemptive rawness or—to seek a less canonical comparison just down the multiplex hall—next to the workmanlike plotting and fizz of The Lincoln Lawyer. Barely worth the extra credit, kids.

 
My Voice Nation Help
14 comments
Cbaseball
Cbaseball

you have convinced me to stop reading reviews.

Vince H.
Vince H.

Ummm no - you guys are dopes. I've been an avid fan of Village Voice film criticism since I was younger, and while Nick Pinkerton is no J. Hoberman, he's written plenty of good film reviews. You people commenting here probably have bad taste in movies.

Ilovenola2
Ilovenola2

<"The Conspirator: Another Dull History Lesson From Robert Redford"> And yet another childish review (it's BORRRRING!!) from a junior pseudo-critic!! Perhaps we should request the ages of those who write about film before we waste our time reading their work.

BethanyG
BethanyG

I saw this movie on opening weekend and found it to have a great cast, telling a story that most Americans don't know about, including myself. I have a deep appreciation for the team of people who made this film, for their determination to bring stories of history to life, lest we forget the messages from the stories of our past and be doomed to repeat them again. The theater I saw this in was sold out and the movie received a round of applause at the end. How often does that happen at the movies anymore? I would highly recommend this film to everyone!

Trust Wineford
Trust Wineford

It's always interesting to read these comments areas, and inevitably find the one person who harkens back to a junior high mentality (easy to find here, which one I'm talking about) for an always inspiringly pleasant romp through an ignorant reminder of why movies like Redford's are important and relevant. It is because of the mindless half of the country (or more?) that we have stories like this woman's murder, where people in power like Edwin Stanton are not called to justice, whether a hundred fifty odd years ago or now. As long as the world is run on brutality and blind passion (which is housed in so many movies, today, again, playing to the twelve year old need to be every minute "entertained" by some shock to the emotional rubberband spleen), twisting the law or the language to suit the whims of the powerful, and people remain ignorant as to their corrupting influence, things will not change. I loved every minute of this completely riveting film. Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Pale Fire, when the brutes are leading us to the wall, we'll spit into the eye of the dedicated imbeciles, just for the fun of it. Well, Redford has too much class to spit, but his on-going indictment of imbecility and brutality serves to shed a little much needed "perpetual-noon sunlight" into a world too far gone on its own high opinion of itself and its ability to perceive what is right and just and "grownup" in the darkness of its own arrogance. Four stars for Redford.

Fedup
Fedup

Once again, the usual 40 score from the Village Voice "critics". I am fairly certain that there has not been a movie ever produced that would get a score over 70 from these idiots. Do us all a favor, find some other way to express your dour perspective on the world. Panning every movie that comes out does not make you relevant.

yelsaid
yelsaid

I'm sorry, but did you actually watch this movie, or sleep through it? That you could reduce the character of Mr Aiken to the first few moments of the film, and then dismiss him as an "idealistic youth" shows that you clearly missed the latter 2 hours of film. He changes from a person convinced of his client's guilt to her passionate advocate right before our eyes. How could you have missed that? How could you have committed yourself to such an uninspired opinion?

Espi
Espi

it's very interresting

Hanoi Jane
Hanoi Jane

robert redfrod looks like a hundred year old burnt out shit head----and he has shit for brains too.

Mrp
Mrp

As if he cares what an insect like you thinks of him.

Vanessa the red
Vanessa the red

As if anybody cares what a piece of shit like you thinks.

 

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

Loading...