Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Release Review: The Conspirator (Robert Redford, 2010)

The American Judicial System, while still plagued by problems today, came under scrutiny all the way back in post-Civil War Washington. One case in particular established legal precedents that still stand today, that of Mary Surratt. Robert Redford, in his recent film The Conspirator, tackles the trial of the woman accused of aiding and abetting the conspirators behind the infamous assassination of American President Abraham Lincoln. The case in question, which took place while the country was still divided by war and crisis, did not abide by the system set in place by the United States Constitution, with the woman (a civilian) tried not before a jury of her peers, but that of a military tribunal. With a bitter government seeking not only swift justice for the crimes, but also revenge, Mary Surratt stood no chance.

In addition to Lincoln, attempts were made on the lives of Vice President Andrew Johnson and the Secretary of State. Seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the political figures. The lone woman charged, Surratt (Robin Wright) owned a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Booth and is co-conspirators had been invited by Mary’s son John (Johnny Simmons), who fled before the night and still remains missing at the time of trial. Defense Attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), believing Mrs. Surratt to be entitled to a defense, assigns inexperienced attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, to the case. The military tribunal is also assigned on the orders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who wishes to silent an enraged public with a swift trial.

Aiken is at first reluctant to take the case and believes his client is guilty. When he finally meets with Surratt he immediately establishes that she too, believes her defense is a lost cause. Aiken is clearly out of his depth, constantly finding himself at a crossroads with the smarmy prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), and the President of the Military Commission (Colm Meaney). He seeks help from Surrat’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) to determine her mother’s knowledge of the secret meetings conducted in her house, and passionately raises a spirited defense, discrediting the statements of key witnesses. Surratt's conversations with Aiken in her cell and the accounts of the witnesses are accompanied by poorly conceived flashbacks that reveal their testimony. Formerly a popular figure because of his war heroics, the dedicated Aiken soon finds himself an outcast as the nation turns against him and his client. Only his close friends Baker and Hamilton (Justin Long and James Badge Dale) stand beside him as he tries to convince Mary to turn on her missing son, the lone conspirator to evade capture.

The Lincoln assassination is famous, but what are not so well known are the events that transpired afterward. Most people will have heard of the name John Wilkes Booth. He was a talented theatre actor and the man directly responsible for Lincoln’s death. While this event has been portrayed before, in D.W Griffith's Birth of a Nation in 1915, Redford spends little more than a few early minutes capturing the simultaneous assassination attempts in a collaborated montage, before turning to the courtroom drama and his more obvious political agendas of detailing the injustice that plagued Surratt's trial and where such an important case stands in American judicial history. Many responses have also linked the injustice to the case involving the military detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

This is clearly a well-researched and accurately compiled story by screenwriter James D. Solomon, with The Conspirator working effectively as an intriguing study of a little-known account that will likely serve history buffs well. For many others, the expositional and stagey approach will be hard to absorb, and come across as bland but informative than engaging or entertaining. As a 'big screen' experience too, it comes across as very dull. The Conspirator certainly cannot be commended for its artistic merits. I was immediately put-off by the washed-out cinematography, which gives Washington this strange otherworldly atmosphere. The light flooding into the courtroom gave it a grimy appearance, even capturing the dust floating in the air, while the hazy candle-lit interiors and night sequences seemed amateurishly captured. There was also very little imagination to the simple (but scattered) camera movements and clunky editing, which cut away from the aural accounts at awkward times. These dialogue-heavy sequences in the courtroom are the best in the film, but remain infrequently engaging.  

While McAvoy’s passionate and charismatic performance keeps the film mildly interesting, few others match his energy. He stands out in every single scene. Robin Wright, also good, downplays her character initially, but has some quite profound emotional outbursts in the latter half when her situation becomes desperate. Danny Huston (The Constant Gardner), the man you can always rely on to play a smarmy traitor or villain, once again is completely unlikable. He gives the role everything you would ‘expect’ but never anything surprising or remotely memorable. Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) is one of the most reliable character actors in the business, didn't need to be in this film. His character is inconsequential. Similarly, were Alexis Bledel, playing Aiken’s love interest, and Justin Long (sporting an atrocious moustache) as his wounded war buddy. On that subject, how many bad beards were there in this film? A hell of a lot. 

The Conspirator is a talky, dreary-looking, infrequently engaging courtroom drama and history lesson that raises little emotion from the audience and asks us to suffer the drivel of grumpy old men, and a pretty blatant political agenda. Still, James McAvoy’s passionate and inspiring performance and the recreation of this turbulent period were impressive. But overall, it’s not a necessary ‘big screen’ experience. 

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (C-)


  1. yeah totally, it sounds like an interesting watch on dvd. glad you saw it instead of me andy

  2. Yeah, I can't recommend this at the cinema.