Title: The Conspirator
Year of Release: 2010
Date Viewed: September 26th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
With a title like The Conspirator, it's easy to prematurely conclude that whatever the depicted events at hand are, it would be explored through hypothetical angles. Oliver Stone has practically made a career out of that very practice. Robert Redford's previous directorial project Lions for Lambs validated his own ability to do the same. But with The Conspirator, Redford opts for a more business style of filmmaking. The infinite urban legends that have ever been hypothesized about the Abraham Lincoln assassination are dismissed entirely; instead favoring a strict fact-based account of the aftermath of Lincoln's death. Alternative angles only exist within the minds of the documented individuals who weigh the possible outcomes and consequences of their important actions. A virtually impossible task given the unique nature of the country's time period.
The suspected conspirator is Mary Surratt portrayed by Robin Wright. Her Confederate soldier son John (Johnny Simmons) is the top-ranking suspect of collaborators to John Wilkes Booth's fateful move. Now under national imprisonment and interrogation, her only hope of defense against the angry mob of the North is Civil War hero turned aspiring lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). The normal courtroom dramas are bridged with Aiken's closed door conversations with Surratt and overseers of the justice department.
Like most situations of extreme despair, there needs be a lightning rod of blame. The prosecutors believe Surratt to be that very thing. The events lead us to question whether they are on the correct track or if the restless thirst for justice is clouding the judgment of legitimacy. Aiken grows skeptical as the case unfolds. The supporting dialogue is complemented by McAvoy's eyes and voice projection growing progressively louder and more desperate. It's natural enough but sometimes noticeably veers into "we're using this for the trailer" territory.
The Conspirator deserves credit for data authenticity but falls short of the optimal grade for mise-en-scene. I'm no historian, but the accuracy is sound as far as I've been able to tell. This is sure to please educators who prefer to add entertainment media into their curriculum's study material. But Redford's straightforward approach compromises the experience for style oriented viewers. Style is by no means everything. But it's fair to wish for more breakaways from a limited number of ideas. A common lighting motif is recognizable early. Interior settings are favored with only a single window allowing the minimum amount of illumination necessary for events to take place. It's an impressive setup that makes room for empathy. The prisoner is shut out from the world literally. The defense is left out of the truth loop. But it's way overdone and becomes irritating far ahead of the climax. The darkness itself isn't the problem. This is the nineteenth century after all. It's the result of lackluster set design.
Costume design is a hit-and-miss endeavour with the misses borderline laughable. Robin Wright has a natural look for the job and probably had a hard-working staff that maintained continuity with the haggard appearance. Justin Long on the other hand needed tweaks. He's a fine actor who I sense has yet to show his full range. But whoever gave him that outrageous mustache should consider submitting a resume to Studio 8H.
Every person decent at heart wants justice to prevail all times. We're inherently brought up to believe that any conviction is a sign of justice taking place. Unpopular acquittals are met with public outcries that shout over any reason-filled counterarguments even if the latter have stronger ground to stand on. The Conspirator is the latest in a long-standing tradition of films that serve to reinforce that unpleasant truth. Setting the conflict during a landmark period in American history keeps it somewhat immune from stale narratives. The technical faults and lack of artistic bravery bring the film down to a level that can be respected if not fully appreciated.