When the Principles of Law Are Upended, an Agenda is Always to Blame
A Film Review of The Conspirator
By: Lawrence Napoli
The first thought that manifested when the end credits began to roll for The Conspirator was that this film was clearly the best of Robert Redford’s career as a director. Then I was reminded of another of his films, Quiz Show (1994) and alas, Redford’s most recent efforts can only be considered a tie with that brilliance. Regardless, this film will be one of the better, if not best, period pieces that the American viewing public will have access to this year and I fear that its limited grandeur has predestined its fate as a box office flop for reasons completely unbeknownst to yours truly. Let’s break down the facts: 1) the story involves one of the most controversial and popular moments in American history, 2) big names are attached: Redford, McAvoy, Wright, Wilkinson, Kline and 3) the execution is there: performances are on mark and production value is high. The only possible explanations for the fact it has only taken in just under $7 million at the box office are as follows: a budget of only $25 million doesn’t allow for the most robust spending for advertising, people are saving up (Americans, saving?) for the biggest summer parade of blockbusters in recent memory, everyone was really more interested in films about talking CG animals, or the public’s collective taste in filmmaking has become so disgraceful that we wouldn’t know a good film if Ron Jeremy had a spool of Casablanca dangling from his junk and he proceeded to smack each and every one of us in the face with it!
I find it fascinating when period pieces are able to revolve around a moment in time which many people from a certain region are quite familiar with and are able to shed new light on the overall situation when specific points of that history are highlighted. Most Americans (should) know about the Civil War and the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated towards the end of that conflict. But who really knows anything about the investigation and trials of the conspirators who aided John Wilkes Booth? Most presume the guilty got what they deserved; otherwise Lincoln would always be referenced when bloody murder was gotten away with. What this interesting screenplay, written by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, presents is the possibility of counter conspiracy by members of the Federal government in the prosecution of those presumed guilty and the fine line that the law walks between justice and vengeance. Thus, most of this film’s drama unfolds within a (military) courtroom of the times as a former Captain in the Union Army defends the sole female conspirator via testimony, investigation and flashbacks. These plot devices fill in the details of the events that led to the assassination which the film quite skillfully displays in its opening moments.
Not being a historian, I cannot comment as to the historical accuracy of these events as presented on film, but I can say that Robert Redford could ill afford directing a historically inaccurate film because his directing career has not equated to the brilliance of his acting career. The script reveals a compelling and very plausible manner in which the fallout of the president’s assassination was dealt with by using an effective theme to ingratiate the audience to the protagonist’s plight: men and women of principal will always be sandbagged by the powerful at the most critical times in the maturation of this nation. Frederick Aiken as the defense attorney for Mary Surratt is torn between his loyalty to his government and his president and his duties as an officer in the judicial system. Top scores for the dialogue as it does well to avoid as much legal jargon as possible in favor of plain speaking and blunt questioning while emphasizing the passion of the main characters for the different causes they happen to represent. This is not an overly burdensome plot to follow, but will require an engaged mind to be entertaining.
The production design for a period piece of this era is not what I would consider as challenging as reproducing the intricately posh environments and apparel of either the French Revolution (1790s) or the Italian Renaissance. However, Kalina Ivanov provided an adequate proficiency in establishing a genuine look to the troubled times of the American Civil War. It would have been nice to see a bit more battlefield scenes that further establishes protagonist Frederick Aiken as a principled patriot, but such a bloody show would rip the attention away from the theme of a relatively newborn nation struggling to discover its own sense of civility. As such, the apparel for high class women of the period show several influences of vintage European design whereas even men of status with varying degrees of tuxedos and business attire do not demonstrate a sharp contrast from common threads. The Conspirator does not display an overabundance of exterior locations with the exception of the urban neighborhood meant as downtown Washington D. C. and the prison fort in which the conspirators were detained for the duration of their trials. This film was ironically shot on location in the state of Georgia, thus the production team must have scouted an Old Fort Niagara type of preservation society that was able to provide both distinct exteriors.
This film’s opening scene firmly establishes Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy as a self sacrificing man of principal on the battlefield. The only problem with this scene is that it is shared with Justin Long? Yes I find it quite curious myself that an actor of Long’s caliber has any prolonged presence in a serious drama like this that I would not have been surprised to encounter Will Ferrell in a following scene, but would be compelled to walk out on the film at that point. This was a questionable call on Redford’s part because the moment I confirmed that the actor was in fact, Justin Long, images of Dodgeball, Accepted, and PC vs. Mac commercials filled my head and severely disrupted the poignancy of the opening scene and soured every other he participated in as a friend of Aiken’s, Nicholas Baker. That’s not to say his performance was bad, but I found his attempts at producing some sort of period, Americana accent quite annoying and totally unnecessary. McAvoy’s American accent puts Long’s to shame and if McAvoy was any more Scottish than he is, he’d be William Wallace. Type casting is a b*tch and if Justin Long wishes to break the mold of goofy comedy sidekick/lead, then he’ll need a few more go’s with films like this as well as a refresher course at the Actors’ Studio.
Despite the aforementioned disruption, James McAvoy truly carries this production with dignity, passion and class, the likes of which one expects of an experienced thespian of 30 years, but infrequently enjoys from the roster of known “talent.” His performances in films like Atonement and Wanted sealed the deal as one of my favorite young male actors of this day in age with this film adding to that certainty. I hope and pray for his sake that X-Men: First Class is not the massive bust I presume it will be because James has not entirely found his niche in the movie business, despite his A-List talent. Being an influential contributor to big budget productions while maintaining the “street-cred” from smaller dramas like The Conspirator is a recipe for success provided that both are considered successful: financial or otherwise. The man has a keen ability to shift demeanor in the most authentic way that his everyman’s appeal is easily elevated to heroic stature whenever he wants. The onscreen chemistry he develops with mentor and Senator Reverdy Johnson (masterfully played by Tom Wilkinson) represents the best of what the professional desires from a worthy boss: mutual respect with the ability to push one’s efforts. The rest of the cast is rounded out by solid performances by Kevin Kline as the antagonistic Edwin Stanton, a modest display of an “innocent” southern pseudo-belle by Robin Wright and the unquestioned, authoritative demeanor typical of Colm Meaney.
The Conspirator is a drama that does a lot of things right, but not enough of everything to be considered a great, courtroom drama. The benchmarks for that title remain To Kill a Mockingbird for all time and A Few Good Men for contemporary films. I felt that the whole angle in regards to Aiken’s defense of the first woman put to death by the Federal government was lost on the fact that Robin Wright’s performance could not decide on being the persecuted victim or the principled martyr whose only vindication lies in death. In this regard, she was no different from any of the men that were accused of conspiracy. Still, this film’s theme and message resonates strongly enough to cover for flat supporting characters, which was the only true weakness of this production. When national tragedy can be taken advantage of by manipulating fear, the powerful will inevitably push an agenda that furthers their ends with only few individuals of principal standing in their way. I have no clue whatsoever what kind of moment in recent American history this theme could possibly be referencing!