Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"The Conspirator"

The Conpirator - Directed by Robert Redford, written by James D. Solomon, story by Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, and Danny Huston - Rated PG-13

"In times of war, the law falls silent."

Historical dramas are a bit rare in the blockbuster era. Movies that deal with the non-violent aspects of history aren’t easily marketable and don’t appeal to younger audiences. Thankfully a movie like The Conspirator can still sneak its way onto the big screen. (Unfortunately, though, it has been largely ignored by the movie-going masses since its release a couple weeks ago.)

The Conspirator tells the overlooked story of Mary Surrat (Robin Wright), the boarding house owner who was accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and others (Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were targeted as well, but were not killed). The film is basically a courtroom drama set during the angry months following Lincoln’s death. That is the most important factor in the film, the main theme being law vs. vengeance.

Surrat is defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former Union soldier who doubts his own client’s innocence. Of course as Aiken starts to investigate Surrat’s involvement his mind starts to change. The story really picks up as Aiken finds the deck stacked against him. It seems that everyone (particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton [Kevin Kline]) wants a quick trial that ends with death sentences for as many defendants as possible. The main conflict of the movie boils down to this: should due process be followed even when the nation is in a crisis?

That conflict makes the movie a bit political. But The Conspirator is still a movie first and a statement second, so more on the politics later. As a movie, The Conspirator manages to be entertaining. There is a wide cast of characters portrayed by an impressive cast. Mainly, though, the film works if you have an interest in history. There is much effort to give the film an 1860s look from the costumes to the locations and, more importantly, to the lighting of the film. Normally lighting isn’t an element that jumps out at the viewer but here the reliance on sunlight and candles gives the film a distinctive look. Director Robert Redford also tries to spice the courtroom proceedings up with pans and zooms, but these little touches ended being a bit on the distracting side.

The camera movements were a slight annoyance because they were unnecessary. If you’ve paid to see this movie you know what you’re in for: a courtroom drama in which most of the action consists of dialogue. The Conspirator succeeds because the court case is riveting and, especially if you’re not very educated about the event, it maintains a bit of suspense throughout.

The performances help out quite a bit as well. James McAvoy does a fine job of first showing contempt then compassion for his client. And he handles the typical courtroom speeches quite well. Robin Wright adds a nice steely resolve to Surrat. Kevin Kline shows equal parts patriotism, gravitas, and self-righteousness as Stanton. There are many other examples since the cast includes small roles from the likes of Shea Whigham, Stephen Root, James Badge Dale, Evan Rachel Wood, Norman Reedus, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Tom Wilkinson, and Justin Long.

That last name might throw you off a bit and it should. Long is a decent enough actor and he’s fine in this film, but he’s just a distracting presence here. Some comedic actors are just too typecast to make the foray into dramatic roles. But that’s not even it. Justin Long can’t pull off a period piece in which he has a big moustache. He just looks goofy.

Long shouldn’t have been there and there are other things that could’ve been cut from the film. The locations are nice and all, but there are far too many establishing shots in which McAvoy rides up to a location and makes his entrance. Once is fine to establish the location, but after that it’s okay to simply cut to him at the location rather than make the audience watch another minute roll by in which a character approaches a place he has been multiple times before.

The above problems are miniscule, though. Overall, The Conspirator is an entertaining historical drama. It’s fairly accurate as well. Of course there are some instances where the film moves away from history (some people are cut out, etc.) but if you want a complete historical account you should read a book about it anyway.

What makes a movie like The Conspirator truly work isn’t exact historical accuracy anyway; it’s the ability to apply past events to current ones. The whole idea of the law being suspended a bit in times of great stress can be applied to multiple scenarios: the treatment of Japanese in America after Pearl Harbor, or the stereotyping of Muslims after 9/11. Some may cry “Liberal!” at that notion but regardless of your politics you can’t deny parallels to history. It is possible you will disagree with the statement this film makes, though. There are certainly people out there that feel our laws shouldn’t completely apply to all citizens depending on our country’s situation.

There may be some who disagree with the film’s statements, but it would be hard to deny that The Conspirator is a well made film that can spark conversation. With the summer movie season about to kick into high gear, you would do well to check this out, because there aren’t many thought-provoking movies hitting the multiplexes in the near future.

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