A Review of The Conspirator

A bit of rewriting, and a change of venue (say, at the Ford Theater rather than your local multiplex) and The Conspirator would be a great drama.

As a film though, I am not sure. It comes with some strings attached (more on that in a minute) but it also just feels heavy-handed. I agree with the film’s points, but not with its approach. Still, the film is one of the better ones that is currently in theaters. If more films used this sort of intensity, the whole industry would be better off.

The film is the story of Mary Surrat. You need more? Alright….every American probably knows about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent search for John Wilkes Booth. What many may not know is Booth was working with several conspirators who worked to kill other members of Lincoln’s cabinet. After Booth was killed, the other were arrested. One of the people arrested, Mary Surrat (Robin Wright) ran a boarding house that the conspirators met in. She is being tried by a military tribunal that curtails many of Surrat’s rights. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is serving as her attorney, is frustrated by the kangaroo court that has been set up. He also tries to reassure Surrat’s daughter Anne (Evan Rachel Wood) about her mother and the situation that the quest for vengeance has caused.

First the great; every single actor gives a good performance. McAvoy acts like a man who is never really sure how he feels about Surrat, and never overtly becomes the stereotypical lawyer who is trying to support the underdog. Surrat remains mysterious throughout the film, and none of the “villains” are shown as particularly malevolent. The cast Redford assembled is fabulous (Kevin Kline is unrecognizable as Secretary of War Stanton) and actually remain as passionate about the material as Redford was.

That alone makes it watchable. It feels like a stage play, actually. I know there have been others who have criticized it (somehow, this makes it “slow”) but I did not have that problem. In fact, the film remained energetic during its run time. So, I am going to say this is a good film. If you are interested in this time period, then you owe it to yourself to see the film.

But there is a problem with The Conspirator. Or rather, what the film is trying to accomplish. Redford makes the same mistake that many people make – they view history as a sort of endless story toward enlightenment and feel a sense of frustration with the past. Yes, what the people in the tribunal did was very wrong, from our point of view. But Redford fails to let us in and see their point of view. Many of the people sitting in judgment of Surrat still felt the wounds of the American Civil War. They wanted vengeance – and perhaps it is easy to understand why. Turning anything into a black and white issue is never a proper way to examine it.

The film also comes with baggage that is impossible to ignore. Robert Redford basically released the film as a commentary on Obama’s continued operation of Guantanamo Bay. That is certainly something that is ripe for discussion, but I think Redford does not raise any real points about that ongoing controversy. He is comparing apples to oranges and does not even realize it.

Here’s the big question – are terrorists citizens or soldiers? If you have a definitive answer, congratulations. You are the world’s best political scientist. Or a liar. Mary Surrat, John Wilkes Booth, and everyone else involved in the conspiracy was clearly a civilian. Thus it was easy for Redford to demonstrate a call to arms about this particular incident. And it was resolved – no civilian is allowed to be tried by a military tribunal. To try to claim that there are parallels between this and the current situation at Guantanamo Bay is simply not accurate.

I had better stop before this review becomes nothing more than an editorial. But that is also what I was thinking about throughout the film. I am glad that I watched The Conspirator. But it is not a film that will stay in my mind for long as the year continues. Redford wanted it to be something much greater than it actually is, yet it is not. The Conspirator will not turn any heads. But it still does enough.

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