The title of Robert Redford’s newest film, “The Conspirator,” suggests it is a suspenseful political thriller. Instead, he directs a painfully slow film that lacks any real drama. It seems that the story would have been a better fit for the stage than the big screen.
“The Conspirator” begins on the night of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The opening minutes quickly depict that night’s events, identifying John Wilkes Booth immediately as the president’s direct murderer. However, it was clear Booth was not the only man involved in the plot that sought to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Three other men were identified as co-conspirators as well as one southern woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), whose story becomes the film’s focal point.
Surratt, whose son is one of the conspirators, is accused of fully knowing the conspirators’ plots for assassination and housing them. A senator from Maryland, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), initially takes up Surratt’s case. Knowing he had no chance to give a southerner a fair trial (Maryland was a border state during the Civil War that did not secede but remained a slave state), he turned to a Union Captain to defend Mary. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) regrettably takes the case, and struggles with defending a woman the country wants dead for her supposed role in the Lincoln assassination.
“The Conspirator” is full of fine performances, especially from its two lead roles. McAvoy’s American accent is flawless, and he is extremely convincing as the Union captain who returns to his position as a lawyer following the war. The audience can feel his frustration with Mary, who he at first believes to be lying – he wants her dead just like the rest of the country. Wright is compassionate and captivating in her scenes. She steals every moment of screen time with her persuasiveness as a loving mother and lonesome widow who sees the inevitability of her death at the hands of the subjective viewing jury.
Several established actors make fine contributions to smaller roles in the film. Kevin Kline plays Secretary of Defense Edwin Stanton, and is unrecognizable as a man filled with hate towards those who killed the beloved president. Stephen Root provides small portions of much-needed comic relief to the film as a witness to the prosecution. The always-excellent Wilkinson also does a great job with the little screen time he is given.
Most of the casting and acting was superb in this film. There were a few poor casting decisions and several moments of contemporary dialogue that made for some anachronistic moments. Justin Long, known more for his comedic work, plays a friend of Frederick’s. Alexis Bledel, who is also known for work in other genres (mainly films and series dedicated to teenage girls), plays Frederick’s love interest Sarah Weston. Both are talented actors, but seemed so wrong and out of place in this film. It did not help that these characters in particular had lines that fit better in a new “Transformers” movie than a historical drama set in the 1800s.
The biggest problem with “The Conspirator” is its pacing. There are few thrills and little excitement to carry the picture. It relies far too much on its acting. With a title like “The Conspirator,” the audience may be expecting just that: a little conspiracy. There were no twists or turns, just a straightforward and bland narrative that mostly takes place in a courtroom. If there is one thing a successful courtroom drama needs, it is energy. This film has none of it. Unfortunately, it seems Redford was far more interested in making a film that is desperate to make connections to the post-Sept. 11 actions our government took (particularly those involving terrorists sent to Guantanamo Bay). Redford should have put his politics aside to make a film that offered more engaging drama.
Overall, the story of “The Conspirator” is a strong one. It deals with the issues lawyers face when forced to defend something that goes against their principles, or someone they believe is guilty. Additionally, the film depicts what can happen to a nation that is so bloodthirsty in seeking revenge it forgets its own foundations and morals. It is a story that would play better on the stage. Its slow moving style, courtroom setting and rich characters are all perfect attributes of a strong play.
”The Conspirator” is the first release of the newly formed production company simply known as “The American Film Company.” The company is “founded on the belief that real life is often more compelling than fiction,” and they assure, “that each production remains true to the history from which it is drawn.” In this regard, “The Conspirator” succeeds. The film is incredibly historically accurate to the events depicted. They may be wrong in their belief, however, that real life is more compelling than fiction.
Kevin Romani can be reached at [email protected]