Tuesday, April 19, 2011

REVIEW: The Conspirator

Robert Redford's new film calls itself The Conspirator, but it's not really about Mary Surratt - and that's part of its problem.

The movie details the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, focusing particularly on Surratt (Robin Wright), the most controversial figure in the case. Many people over the years, myself included, have raised their eyebrows over the fact that Surratt was hung with John Wilkes Booth's confidantes, when evidence suggests that at worst, she was an accessory. There are other schools of thought that say Surratt was fully an accomplice - so much so that "she built the nest" in which Booth hatched his plots.

Unfortunately for Surratt, the person who says she built the nest is her own defense attorney, Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). He is thoroughly convinced of Surratt's guilt but takes her case at the behest of Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Johnson believes Surratt's rights are being steamrollered in the names of revenge and swift justice.

Redford and his screenwriter James D. Solomon clearly aim to contrast the Surratt cast with the lack of scruples resulting from the war on terror. I won't spend my time dwelling on the comparison except to say that it's revealing to draw the parallels.

What I was more interested in was the personal stories - but the film does not succeed in telling all of them. McAvoys plays his character with conviciton, and it was fascinating to witness opposing forces at play. I only wish that conflict were more in evidence in the character of Mary Surratt. We see plenty of Aiken's soul, but precious little of hers.

I disagree with those who fault Wright for the opaqueness of Mary Surratt. As anybody who has seen Forrest Gump should remember, Wright is more than capable of playing a multi-faceted character. Clearly,  Solomon's aim was to make Surratt something of an enigma, so we never can tell for sure just how guilty she was. And that's the character Wright played. We will never know just how complicit Mary Surratt was. The answer to that question has been lost to history - if, indeed,  a definitive answer ever existed at all.

However, I think Solomon's reach exceeded his grasp. I understood his intent, but I think he went too far in concealing Mary Surratt's soul. That deficiency stands out when McAvoy is so compelling, as is Evan Rachel Wood, playing Surrat's bewildered daughter.

Redford and Solomon err too in emphasizing extraneous characters and subplots. The film has a wartime prologue and a post-execution epilogue, neither of which is necessary. Good actors like Alexis Bledel and Justin Long are wasted on subplots that add nothing to the story.

Even with its faults, The Conspirator is worthwhile. Still, I expected better with this pedigree. The story of the madness that extended beyond the Civil War is indisputably great - but the movie is only, disputably, good.


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