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Conspirator, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Other Lincoln Lawyer. (Hey, It Was Either That Or "Too Soon!")"
2 stars

Since kicking off his second career as a director 30 years ago with “Ordinary People,” Robert Redford has made a series of high-class feature films containing thoughtful narratives filled with big and weighty ideas told in a stately and carefully considered manner that feel like elite boutique stores when compared to the strip-mall aesthetic of most commercial American cinema--it is impossible to imagine him ever agreeing to do a cheesy genre experiment or gaudy tent pole epic just for laughs and a big paycheck. The trouble is that, for the most part, his films are so stately and carefully considered that they often feel like lavishly appointed dioramas than engaging and interesting stories--only “Quiz Show,” his excellent 1994 drama about the 1950’s quiz show scandal, has the beat of a human heart at its center--and as a result, most of his films are, for all the formal elegance on display, a chore for most anyone to sit through. (When “Ordinary People” is discussed today in film circles--if it is at all--it is only in the context of demonstrating how out-of-touch the Oscars are because it won Best Picture and Best Director over Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece “Raging Bull“). That said, while he has certainly directed boring movies in the past, he has largely managed to avoid making an out-and-out bad one--the kind of eyebrow-raising stinker so poorly conceived and executed that it makes one wonder what in the hell he could have possibly been thinking when he decided to make it his next project.

Alas, with his latest effort, the historical drama “The Conspirator,” he has given us just that sort of boondoggle. The subject matter--the trial of the sole woman charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and how the rights of an individual were heedlessly trampled upon by a nation thirsting for revenge even in the face of evidence that suggested that she had no part in said conspiracy--is solid enough and, handled correctly, could have yielded a stirring drama that would shed light on a little-remembered portion of our country’s history while illustrating the uncanny parallels between the issues raised back then and what is going on in America today in the wake of 9/11. Unfortunately, thanks to a heavy-handed screenplay, clunky direction and some of the weirdest miscasting in a historical drama since John Wayne essayed the role of Genghis Kahn in “The Conqueror,” “The Conspirator” completely fails to do that and the result is a dreary mess of a movie that goes so wrong so quickly that it actually winds up dying on the screen before Lincoln himself does.

The film opens on the fateful day of April 14, 1865 with the events leading up to a coordinated series of attacks by a group of Confederate sympathizers hoping to help their cause by simultaneously assassinating Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward and throwing the Union into chaos. Though the attempts on the lives of Johnson and Seward would fail--Seward was stabbed in his bed while recuperating from a carriage accident but survived while the man charged with killing Johnson got drunk and chickened out--Lincoln would die of his injuries the next day. Over the next few days, anyone who had even the slightest connection to the crimes would be captured or killed by their pursuers. The only one who managed to slip away was John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), who claimed to have had nothing to do with the plot but who nevertheless fled to Canada. Unable to get their hands on him, the government instead arrested his widowed mother, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), as one of the conspirators on the basis that since she owned the rooming house that the other conspirators, including Booth, used as a meeting place, she must have been in on the plot as well.

At first, Mary’s defense is spearheaded by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) but when he realizes that it would be impossible for any Southerner to represent her without fatally compromising her case, he enlists the aid of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a young lawyer and Union Army veteran, to take over for him. At first, Aiken is appalled by the notion of trying to mount a defense for the woman accused of conspiring to kill Lincoln but as he prepares for the trial, it begins to dawn on him that Mary is being railroaded by the government and that she is being put on trial largely in the hopes that news of her prosecution would inspire her son, the person they wanted in the first place, to emerge from hiding and face the music himself. Besides, if he doesn’t, one Surratt is as good as another in the eyes of a government and country looking to avenge their leaders death no matter what the cost. Aiken’s suspicions are confirmed when he realizes that instead of a regular trial with a jury of their peers, Mary and her co-defendants will be facing a military tribunal arranged by now-President Johnson and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) in which only a majority vote of the nine-member panel was necessary for a guilty verdict, a two-thirds majority was required for the death penalty and the only person that would hear a defense appeal regarding the verdicts was Johnson himself. Aiken does his best but he is stymied at every turn by the machinations of Stanton and prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and (Spoiler Alert!) Mary Surratt would become the first woman executed by the United States government. Ironically, John Surratt would finally be caught by U.S. officials in Egypt in 1866 and returned to America to be tried--his case, however, was held in a civilian court and ended in a mistrial on the murder charge, the statute of limitations having expired on the other charges.

“The Conspirator” contains all the necessary ingredients for an exciting and thought-provoking historical drama but the chefs--namely Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon--have somehow managed to put them together all wrong and the end result is something that even the most liberal-minded viewers are likely to have difficulty swallowing. Solomon’s screenplay contains all the excitement and gravitas of a grade-school pageant in which anything potentially complex has been thoroughly dumbed-down and spelled out so that no audience member will ever be in danger of missing the key points of every scene. The courtroom scenes are uniformly dull and hopelessly stagey concoctions that drag on for so long and which are so repetitive that I found myself wishing that Woody Allen would pop up to declare the whole thing a sham of a mockery of a sham. Also, even though the film clocks in at a little over too hours, it still feels as if large portions of the story are missing--some characters, such as Mary’s daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and Aiken’s fiancee (Alexis Bledel), pop up briefly but disappear just as quickly while some seemingly important plot elements are introduced but never developed. The key flaw of the screenplay, however, is that it is conceived in such a way that Mary Surratt essentially becomes a supporting character in what should rightly be her story and that the person shoved into the center spotlight, Aiken, is pretty much a complete bore throughout--even during his most heroic moments in the courtroom, he comes off like such a drip that you may find yourself rooting for the prosecution after all.

As for Redford, he once again handles the material with the slow and stately pacing that he is known (and occasionally feared) for as a director but while that approach works in the case of something like "A River Runs Through It," where it served as a way to let viewers experiences the laid-back rhythms of the fly-fishing experience, it does not work in the service of a story like this that needs to build a certain amount of steam so as to better let the sense of righteous anger come across as he did in his previous film, the lightning-quick anti-war polemic "Lions for Lambs." What he does carry over from that film, unfortunately, is a lack of anything regarding subtlety in the way that he uses the material to comment on what is happening in America today as once-cherished freedoms are slowly being stripped away in the name of blind patriotism. Considering the fact that most of the potential audience for this particular film will already be on Redford's side on this particular issue, such material would best be handled with a light touch but he jackhammers this particular point home with such jackhammer-like force that he makes Oliver Stone seem positively restrained by comparison.

Redford also stumbles when it comes to his actors, which does come as a surprise because even his worst films have generally elicited decent performances from a carefully selected cast. Of the bunch, the only one who turns in a worthwhile performance is Robin Wright but, as I mentioned before, her character winds up getting shoved to the sidelines of her own story in favor of Aikin's and despite her best efforts, she never manages to properly take center stage. This approach might have actually worked if the role had been filled by a properly cast actor but not when placed in the hands of James McAvoy, the bland Brit who has sunk many a movie with his palpable lack of anything resembling a genuine screen presence. Here, standing around in itchy-looking clothing, a terribly sad attempt at facial hair and a screen persona that require a 10,000-volt zap to juice him up to the level of mere lethargy, he is woefully unconvincing from start to finish and the worst thing is that he isn't the most miscast actor of the bunch. That dishonor goes to Justin Long--yeah, the jerk from the Apple Computer ads--as one of Aikin's pals who turn on him after he agrees to defend Mary; his presence is so wildly out-of-place that if someone used the miracle of modern technology to create a version of "The Wild Bunch" with Ashton Kutcher digitally replacing William Holden, it would hardly seem more jarring. In smaller roles, Kevin Kline and Danny Huston both act like the villains in a particularly unsubtle melodrama--you half expect them to forget the trial altogether and simply tie Mary Surratt to the nearest train track while twirling their mustaches with maniacal glee.

The story of Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath is a compelling one that Hollywood, for some reason, has never had much luck in transforming into exciting cinema and if nothing else, "The Conspirator" deserves a little bit of credit for at least attempting to make something out of it. That said, it then loses pretty much all of those points with an execution that, unlike Mary Surratt's, never come close to coming off with anything remotely resembling success, though I suppose one could say that it turns out to be just as deadly as Surratt's in the end. It turns out that "The Conspirator" is the first film effort from, a newly formed production company headed by Joseph Ricketts, better known to many of you as the current owner of the Chicago Cubs. Too bad that it was this business venture and not the other one where he was able to use his vast fortune to purchase a strikeout.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21307&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/15/11 00:22:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/16/11 mr.mike Decent film marred by Redford's implied defense of enemy combatants. 3 stars
4/25/11 Lenny Zane Riveting defense of Mary Surratt; totally glosses over degree of guilt of 3 hanged with her 4 stars
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  DVD: 16-Aug-2011


  DVD: 16-Aug-2011

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