The Conspirator Reviews
What I found interesting about this film is that, surprisingly enough, it covered something I was not actually familiar with, because for some odd reason, this part of Civil War and post Civil War history was never something any of my teachers or professors ever felt the need to bring to students's attentions.
This is a really intriguing story, and not just because courtroom dramas are cool, but because of a lot fo the context surrounding the plot and the trial. This is not a cut and dried story, but a rather complex and well developed set of conflicts, mostly involving Surratt's lawyer reluctantly deciding to represent her, mostly because he is a Union war hero, and defending her puts him in one of the most unenviable positions you could think of. Despite his reluctance, he begins to see that there is more to her story, and also more to the reasons for why there seems to be a conspiracy against her.
This film had three historical consultants, and it shows .The dialogue, costumes, and sets are top notch. There are still some liberties and inaccuracies of course, but the film is more competant in it's goal for accuracy than it could have been. Being that Robert Redford directed this, it is a well-balanced film that is never one sided or thinly sketched. Also thansk to him, it tries to do more than just capture a certain historical event, as can be seen as a condemnation of current military tribunals against Islamic terrorists. This last little bit, though not unwarranted, isn't really necessary.
Probably the most significant thing about this film is its cast. Robin Wright is wonderful in a very nicely observed performance as Surratt. It's a shame she's not given higher regard as an actress because she has a lot of talent. James McAvoy is also quite strong as her lawyer Frederick Aiken. The rest of the cast is overflowing with many notable names, even if some of them just show up for a scene or two then leave. Among them are Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, and Justin Long. There's really not a bad lot in the bunch, though Long and Bledel do slightly overact a bit.
Aside from a few minor but expected gripes about inaccuracy, the slight overacting, and the occasional overbearing "dramaticness" of this film, I'm quite pleased with it. The only major concern I have, and it's no small thing, is the film's pace. It's too slow, drags the films out, and makes it feel a lot longer. Thankfully the film is never boring, and there's a lot going on to make one think and keep them engaged, but yeah, this could have been less sluggish and a bit tighter.
All in all, quite a nice film. I mean, I expect decent things from Redford, but this, especially since it concerned something I wasn't familiar with, really caught me off guard and left me feeling pleasantly surprised. You should give it a watch.
The film is a steadily-paced whodunnit that reveals the motives and convictions of bit players rather than the actual whodidder. It's also a timely-as-hell treatise against the breaking of ethical codes in the name of wartime "justice."
In a fact of history that I had actually not known, the mother of one of the conspirators was tried as well. It was alleged that she aided and abetted the plot by, among other things, allowing her boarding house to be used as command central. The Washington establishment, the film suggests, set up what was essentially a mock trial, preventing lawyers from mounting a legitimate defense. The female defendant, Mary Surratt (played well by Robin Wright), especially appears to have been railroaded.
It's hard to understand what Redford found so compelling about this material. The film serves as a reminder about the need to protect the civil rights of the accused even during times of national crisis. But is that it? Redford essentially gives Surratt her day in court 150 years after the fact. I'm sure her descendants appreciate the homage to her and what she suffered. But it doesn't exactly make for riveting drama. Redford keeps his focus strictly on the trial and the legal issues such that none of the characters emerges as a complex person. It's not so much a work of art as a civics lesson.
"The Conspirator" holds one's interest. It's not a bad film. It's noble and well acted. The script is just too simple and one-dimensional.
The story of Mary Suratt still holds lessons that people can see today about how many people wish freedoms only apply to the situations you want them too. If its inconvenient then it's okay to throw it out a window.
From McAvoy to Penn, to Wood, all the way down to Colm Meany this is a well acted film. And this joins the ranks of my favorite Civil War era films ever.
Directed by Robert Redford, "The Conspirator" is a frustrating, intelligent, and well-intentioned movie that turns a potentially fascinating piece of history into the hoariest of coartroom cliches where a longshot client is forced on a neophyte attorney who does not believe in her at first. And like a lot of other courtroom dramas, it seems more concerned with the lawyer than the defendant which is especially counterproductive here since Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood give the best performances in such a notable cast. To be fair, the movie has other things on its mind that make it relevant to modern times but sometimes to the detriment of its own story, making it sound like just another constitutional debate.(To its credit, the movie does not seem to speculate any more than necessary.) Lacking in much insight into the personalities is a shame because I would have been interested in the madness that grips a country after a heinous national crime has been committed.