Friday, April 15, 2011

The Conspirator
Speaking Without Really Talking, But Saying So Much

Robin Wright as Mary Surratt in Robert Redford's Civil War courtroom drama "The Conspirator". 
Roadside Attractions

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, April 15, 2011

Robert Redford's "The Conspirator", which opened across the U.S. today on the 146-year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, gives cinematic life to the story of Mary Surratt, the first known woman hanged by the U.S. government.  Ms. Surratt was tried, convicted and executed in 1865 for conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln, as well as the vice president and Secretary of State.

The facts reveal that Ms. Surratt was a dubious accomplice at the very best, having merely owned and operated the boarding house where unbeknownst to her several men planned to end the life of the 16th U.S. president.  With sexism running rampant and women still three generations away from attaining the right to vote, Ms. Surratt was sacrificed.  Her son was tried but not convicted for the same crime.

Mr. Redford, whose 2007 film "Lions For Lambs" succumbed to sometimes excessive preaching, aims his films these days not at older, wisened audiences but at the new generation of youth still being shaped.  "The Conspirator" thankfully lacks the ingredients that weakened "Lions For Lambs", and it's more than fair to say that the director's films are conversation starters and thought-provokers rather than attempts to execute compact, dynamic Hollywood fare or belly-scratching marvels.

"The Conspirator" is a slow courtroom drama that takes almost an hour to warm up and resonate, using expository scenes where they aren't necessary (i.e. the film's detached opening scene is a poor stand-in to symbolically enhance or justify a decorated character.)  At the film's flawed center is a solid, workmanlike James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a Union war hero and Ms. Surratt's attorney.  Aiken is up against history but does the best he can. 

"The Conspirator" brings the conditions and zeitgeist of the late 1800s front and center, but its title misleads.  Audiences may think the film is about Mary Surratt, but regrettably as with many historical dramas in the annals of American film "The Conspirator" is seen through the eyes of Frederick Aiken, not Ms. Surratt herself.

The focus on Mr. McAvoy's Aiken however, does not abundantly overshadow Mary Surratt thanks to some fine acting.  Ms. Surratt is played superbly by Robin Wright, who continues to show that her subtlety as a credible performer ("The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee" and "State Of Play" among other films) beautifully underlines the power of some of her more recent work.  In "The Conspirator" it's a silent, courageous but tragic power that carries Mary Surratt, though it endures, balancing out this film very well against its top-heavy male cast.  In the film the character Mary Surratt is dignified but not martyred, more memorable in several brief moments than any of the men who advocate for or against her. 

Ms. Wright, with her spare, beautiful and haunting acting here, is more than Oscar-worthy in the very small role she plays, and while the title and film suggest that Ms. Surratt is more a quiet object in a corner than a player of significance in the minds of the men who defend her in court, the few words spoken and expressions supplied by Ms. Wright for her are profound and lasting. 

Speaking of lasting, will Oscar voters remember Ms. Wright next January?  It's hard to say but Ms. Wright deserves accolades in what has so far been a highly refreshing and strong year for women on the big screen (and behind it) once again.

Colm Meaney and Kevin Kline are great here but "The Conspirator" as a film badly needed more energy.  For Civil War-era buffs the film will likely be a source of enjoyment.  Others will enjoy "The Conspirator" for Ms. Wright's compelling work.  The film stays true to its genre without romanticizing it.  Story is more important to Mr. Redford than style or bouquets.

Despite its paternalistic and surrogate ways "The Conspirator" doesn't appear to contain any historical inaccuracies -- unlike "Mississippi Burning", Alan Parker's 1988 film that rewrote the F.B.I. as caring, abiding defenders of black southerners during the civil rights-Sixties, when the record showed -- and everybody and her mother knew -- that J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. had notorious contempt for blacks, especially black activist leaders, whom the organization regularly spied upon with its infamous Cointelpro operations.

Even with its flaws and curious casting choices (Justin Long, for example, appears as a Union soldier), Mr. Redford's civil war era film is much better than it appears.  James Solomon's screenplay is matter-of-fact telling its story without resorting to overly decorous scenes.  The film's negatives are juxtaposed with an earnest, straight-ahead approach underlined and strengthened significantly by Ms. Wright's phenomenal work in it.  In arguably the year's best performance on film to date, Ms. Wright single-handedly makes this history lesson of a film worth watching.

With: Alexis Bledel, James Badge Dale, Jonathan Groff, Danny Huston, Tony Kebbell, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Johnny Simmons, Stephen Root.

"The Conspirator" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some violence.  The film's running time is two hours and two minutes.

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