True-life historical drama teaches, preaches, with lots of speeches
Directed by Robert Redford
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright
The Conspirator is one of those terribly well-intentioned films that crops up every so often, courting Oscar bonhomie and preaching to the choir of progressive-minded audience members. Like tomato juice, it’s probably quite good for you—but it’s not much of a treat. You could easily wedge it on the DVD shelf between Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace. All three are historically based courtroom dramas attempting to highlight some forgotten—but terribly important—piece of jurisprudence that helped cement modern, Western ideals of justice and equality.
While Amistad and Amazing Grace dwelled on earlier chapters in the history of the African slave trade (in America and England, respectively), The Conspirator takes us to one of the later chapters. The year is 1865. The Civil War is all but over. Unfortunately, a group of Southern sympathizers led by successful actor John Wilkes Booth conspires to put an ugly coda on the era—assassinating President Abraham Lincoln (and trying to do the same to a few other government officials nobody remembers).
If we paid the slightest attention in history class, we know that Booth was eventually tracked down and shot in a barn in Virginia. Most of us assume this put an end to the whole affair. What we probably don’t know is that, in a fit of patriotic fervor, the U.S. government tried to convict and execute anyone even remotely connected to Booth in order to assuage the public’s anger. (Bonus effect: That also sent a hardline message to the handful of Southern generals who were still refusing to surrender.)
The Conspirator starts by introducing us to long-lost liberal icon Frederick Aiken. Aiken (played here by Scotsman James McAvoy) is a war hero and a onetime lawyer who gets conscripted to defend several of the people accused of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth. Chief among these alleged conspirators is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the woman who owns the Washington, D.C., rooming house where Booth stayed. Still reeling from the physical and emotional effects of the Civil War, Aiken is in no mood to defend anyone remotely connected to the death of the president.
After meeting the serenely self-assured Surratt and finding out the details of her upcoming trial, however, Aiken takes the case. He’s not so much interested in getting her off the hook as ensuring that justice is served. Turns out no one in the U.S. government cares about justice. Surratt is being tried in a military court—a venue in which she is not allowed to testify, where there is no jury of peers and where only the slightest amount of circumstantial evidence is necessary to convict her. Sound familiar? The Conspirator doesn’t have to work very hard to bring up “those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” comparisons to the questionable terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay.
Again, the film has only the best of intentions. It is good to remember that our country has always struggled to balance national safety and due process—the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, to paraphrase the hell out of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But the very nature of this story bogs the film down quite a bit. Courtroom dramas are difficult to pull off. Sure, they’ve got loads of emotional monologues just waiting for the actors. But the setting ensures the story is chained to a single location, unable to get up and stretch its legs. Courtroom dramas are also unbendingly formulaic. The three-act structure is built right in: evil prosecution attack, heroic defense rebuttal, climactic judge’s ruling. But there are only two real outcomes to a courtroom trial: guilty or innocent. “Innocent” gives us a happy sense of relief that the system works. “Guilty” is the tragic (but super dramatic) end result of a justice system gone wrong. Bound by the facts of history, The Conspirator has only one option open.
The primary cast is commanding. McAvoy (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) and Wright (Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride) are well-aided by Tom Wilkinson (as Aiken’s savvy political boss) and Danny Huston (as the quietly menacing prosecuting attorney). The rest of the cast, though, feels overstuffed—as if the casting director were working too hard to please. We’ve got cameos by Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda), Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler), Alexis Bledel (Rory from “Gilmore Girls”), Norman Reedus (Daryl from “The Walking Dead”), Stephen Root (Jimmy James from “NewsRadio”), Colm Meaney (Chief O’Brien from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), John Cullum (Holling from “Northern Exposure”) and even Justin Long (Alvin from Alvin and the Chipmunks). It’s a little distracting. Seriously, when a film asks us to believe that the “I’m a Mac” guy is your average Civil War vet, it’s pushing credulity to the breaking point.
No doubt the stampede of notable castmembers was attracted by the man behind the camera, Robert Redford. Honestly, it’s a little shocking to see Redford’s name on the credits. He’s directed some well-regarded films (Ordinary People, The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer), but his style isn’t what you’d call distinguished. Like Clint Eastwood, he’s an old-school formalist—more interested in workmanlike construction than showmanlike flair. The Conspirator is perfectly well directed, but it could just as easily have been the work of a talented television director helming his first feature film.
If the subject matter compels you, The Conspirator is an important, moving and convincingly window-dressed drama. The deliberately slow pace and unapologetic political tone, though, make it feel like some liberal leftover from the bygone George W. Bush era—more of a history lecture than a motion picture.
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