Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Conspirator - DVD Review

ll 1/2

Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, Justin Long, Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, James Badge Dale, Toby Kebbell, Norman Reedus and Stephen Root. Directed by Robert Redford.

As a portrayal of historical events, this film is a valuable document. As its own entertainment, it never really comes to life.

The Civil War is finally over, and Pres. Abraham Lincoln has cause to celebrate, but before the nation can even exhale, he is shot in the back of the head. Quickly, John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators are chased down. Booth was killed, but the rest are on trial.

Only one on trial is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), and as her reluctant lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) quickly learns, she may be innocent after all. The movie is seen through Aiken's eyes, and the more convinced he becomes of Mary's innocence, the more the chips are frighteningly stacked against her.

If The Crucible was a response to the McCarthy hearings, then The Conspirator is a response to Guantanamo Bay. The parallels are too juicy. The nation is in fear, prisoners' right are ignored, a military tribunal judges instead of a civilian court, and the movie all but argues that Dick Cheney was War Secretary Edwin Stanton in a previous life.

One choice I wish Redford hadn't made: all the interior shots are done with realistic lighting, so that beams of light coming through the windows puts half of any room in shadow. Another is to keep Mary Surratt a cypher. Oh, Robin Wright makes you think more will be revealed about Mary, but it's never allowed to surface. It's all about the lawyer.

I support this being shown in high-school classrooms, but it is about at the level of your average Masterpiece Theater.

1 comment:

Daniel B. said...

I enjoyed that it was a period piece, but it felt just a bit too heavy handed to me. As if it wasn't obvious what was going on, the monologue about the constitution at the beginning promptly followed by lecture after lecture about injustice...and yet, it completely left out Lincoln and his abuse of the constitution, his discard of habeas corpus during the war, and his trial of other civilians during the war by military tribunal. Yes, he was dead at the beginning of this story (quite necessarily), but he had created the stage and I think using him as the face of the federal government, rather than the Secretary of War Steward (?), would have made this a more nuanced and grey discussion. As it is, though, one cannot argue both sides without strictly defending villains.

And that's just not how the real world works. It is not a debate between villains and heroes. It is between people and people. By ignoring this inherent grey area, Redford only serves to denigrate his political opponents with straw-man arguments and enhance political polarization.

That gripe aside, I thought it a good story and an interesting piece of history.