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THE CONSPIRATOR
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson|
Director:  Robert Redford
Audio:  English  DTS-HD, English and Spanish subtitles
Video:  Color Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Lionsgate
Features:  See Review
Length:  122 Minutes
Release Date:  August 16, 2011

“One bullet killed our beloved president. One bullet but not one man!”

Film **1/2

It is hard to believe how many pivotal moments in history occurred in April of 1865. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General U.S. Grant, ending hostilities in Virginia and starting the inevitable end of the American Civil War. The Confederate Government of Jefferson Davis collapsed and he was captured. But just when euphoria gripped the North, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Anger against the South erupted all over again. Since John Wilkes Booth died rather than be captured, this fury was directed at the possible co-conspirators, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright).

I usually don’t pay too much attention to other reviews, but since I had trouble pinpointing what was missing from the spectacle, I did read other reviews.  Apparently many other reviewers of this movie and DVD release agree with me on several points: the movie is very well-produced and acted, and clearly Redford knows his craft and his attention to historical detail is evident, but like many of his films, it is simply too slow and lacking in impact. In the case of The Conspirator, I was expecting the film to be preachy and condescending because it is all about justice or a lack thereof.

Fortunately, it is not overly preachy, and clearly Mary Surratt did not receive the civilian trial by her peers that she deserved. I was very moved by the movie’s conclusion. However, having waited anxiously to see the film after missing it in the theatre, I actually turned off the DVD after the first hour or so because I was bored. The movie is just dull. James McAvoy’s portrayal of the young attorney Fred Aiken is very pedestrian for the most part, and I can’t help thinking that Redford and his crew just assumes that the audience will “get it.” The whole production does come to a boil in the last one-third, but clearly Redford seemed unable to decide if he was making a mini-series or a movie. 

How could the trial of a woman that might result in a hanging be so boring?  The only real emotion we sense is the desperation of Anna Surratt (Evan Rachel Wood) as her home has bricks thrown through its windows, and she looks on helplessly as her mother faces death.  But even then, well, so what?  Surely even in Victorian times people screamed and threw things and so on.  People are stabbed and all we get are some cliched female movie shrieks.  I kept waiting for someone to blow their top and really scream or let loose in this film, but even the early scenes of Lincoln being assassinated and his cabinet being attacked are dull. If the soundtrack was not there, the viewer would not even know that one of the pivotal moments in world history was about to take place.  

It should have been shorter, much more passionate, and considering the excellent cast, there really is no excuse other than lack of direction. My theory is that  Redford felt the enormous tension and anguish of the subject so deeply that he assumed the viewers would too, even though it is not in the film itself. Some early Eastwood-directed films such as Bird had this problem. Eastwood has grown tremendously as a director, but I am not sure if Redford ever will. And of course Eastwood is still a primal force as an actor and always has been. Redford burns with a much slower flame.

I give Redford great credit for not being too political with this movie, but like so many other Civil War movies, the passion and terror of the war is lost in the details. The other problem of course is that Mary Surratt may have very well been guilty. She certainly should have known what was going on with her own son in her own boardinghouse. Robyn Wright is a fine actress but it is not clear in her portrayal if she is portraying an innocent or guilty woman. For example, she stops eating while imprisoned. Why would an innocent person do this? Or was it a protest?

But maybe that was the point: we don’t really know, and the viewer has to decide.Most of the drama is in the courtroom, and here is where I first realized that the film was not a great one: a juror says “perhaps we have the enemy among us” with the same passion that I read a grocery list.  Really?  The Union was reeling from the war and Lincoln’s death, and this is all we get?  It seems even flatter when contrasted with Danny Huston’s excellent portrayal of Joseph Holt, the prosecutor, and Tom Wilkinson’s convincing portrayal of Reverdy Johnson, Mary’s defender, who ducks out soon after the trial begins and lets James McAvoy try his very first case on this public stage.  Edwin Stanton, played with stern perfectionism by Kevin Kline,  was far from a congenial Secretary of War, but he was very effective.  He had Mary Todd Lincoln removed as Lincoln was dying, for example, but he had the foresight to shut down any entrance and exits from Washington.

Many scenes were filmed at Fort Pulaski outside of Savannah, and Redford expertly made the fort seem very contemporary and foreboding even though in real life it has never really been either one.  But then he missed some small details such as star witness Louis Wiechman (Jonathan Groff from "Glee) saying that he went to "divinity school."  No, Roman Catholics go to "seminary."  A very small detail, but it does matter.

Video ***

The entire production has a sepia tone, giving it an old fashioned feel, but through darkness, shadow and light changing constantly, the cinematography and picture quality is excellent and enjoyable.

Audio ***1/2

The DTS is crisp and clear, minimal use of rear speakers.  The soundtrack is serviceable and does at times add urgency lacking in the dramatic presentation, but neither the soundtrack nor the mix is extraordinary.

Features  **1/2

Redford does a “pop up” style commentary (called "BonusView" here) in which we see and hear him when he wants to say something.  One of his comments is very telling: for the courtroom scenes, he had mostly natural light with dust or smoke hanging in the air, which he says would have been the case in the real courtroom, and he is right.  But no one is shown smoking.  Why not?  The characters of Mad Men smoke vegetable cigarettes constantly, lending to the realism of the show.  Surely Redford knew this, why was he so particular about lighting and costumes, but no one smokes or even coughs?  No pipes to even suggest this maybe?

His tone is so serious and flat in his commentary that I suspect he intimidated some of those with whom he worked.  Sadly this may have flattened their good performances, keeping them from being great.

The Feature-Length Documentary "The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln" is more exciting than the dramatization.  The Making of The Conspirator is more of the usual self-promoting drivel that we have come to expect from so many films these days, though it is of educational value to the craft.   The 10 "Witness History" featurettes are of some academic value, and of course the theatrical trailer, TV spots, and photo gallery are available if more than two and a half hours is not enough.

Summary:

A well-crafted if unexciting first offering from the new American Film Company that could have used some real anger and passion that was overflowing in April of 1865.  It deserves multiple viewings if only to dissect what could have been so much better.

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