April 15, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Watch It At Home:  Scrupulously accurate, to a fault.
In an era that so recently gave us “The Kennedys,” possibly the worst piece of pop culture history ever produced for American television, it seems downright rude to criticize Robert Redford’s new film THE CONSPIRATOR for sticking to the facts.  Accuracy and drama, however, are not always the best of friends.
The Conspirator illuminates a little-known corner of one of the most famous stories in US history.  While the name of John Wilkes Booth is known to everyone (one would hope), relatively few people are aware that after Booth was killed by soldiers, the government prosecuted several others for conspiring in Lincoln’s assassination.  One of those charged was Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright in the film), who had been the landlady at a boardinghouse where her son, among others, reportedly helped plot the crime (which was intended to include not just the attack on Lincoln, but also on the Vice President and Secretary of State).  Surratt was specifically accused of supplying weapons and other materials to Booth and his cohorts.
Surratt’s arrest and trial took place in the glare of the country’s shock and fury over Lincoln’s killing, and the fear that further attacks by recently defeated Confederates might well be coming–Redford and his screenwriter, James D Solomon, want the audience to recognize the similarities to America after 9/11.  Surratt was subjected to trial by a military tribunal, where the normal rules of evidence did not apply, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, doing a good job as essentially Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld) was instrumental in making sure her civil liberties were kept to a minimum, partly in the hope that this treatment would bring her son, who was on the run, to justice.  In the end (Spoiler Alert?), she was convicted and–despite a seeming commutation–hung. 

Redford and Solomon are dogged about recreating the details of the testimony against Surratt and the details of her trial–chunks of the film are taken from the 1865 tribunal transcripts.  These are informative and certainly prove the point, but somewhat lacking in pace and drama.  The “personal” story in the film, such as it is, concerns Surratt’s lawyer, the young and inexperienced Frederick Allen (James McAvoy); I don’t know the history on him, but the story told–a Union war hero who reluctantly takes the case, only to become increasingly convinced of his client’s innocence and thus jeopardize his own bright future by his efforts on her behalf (his socialite fiancee, played by Alexis Bledel?  Not as loyal as he’d hoped)–feels too hackneyed by half.  
Despite the film’s muted tone, Robin Wright gives a performance that’s intense and haunting; it’s the best part she’s had in a long time (probably since White Oleander, almost a decade ago), and she acts the hell out of it. McAvoy is passable in the thinnest role, and a lot of very fine actors make appearances, some to good effect (Tom Wilkinson is the senior lawyer who enlists McAvoy to the case, Evan Rachel Wood is Surratt’s daughter, Danny Huston the chief judge), some not so much (Justin Long should never again do a period film).  
One doesn’t want to diminish The Conspirator too much.  It’s a genuinely worthy film, made with nothing but the best of motives.  It oozes seriousness in every frame, from Newton Thomas Sigel’s dark photography to Mark Isham’s somber score.  You walk out of it knowing more than you did before about American history, and able to make worthwhile connections between the country’s past and its present. Ultimately, though, Redford has illustrated a lesson plan more than he’s made a movie.  
(THE CONSPIRATOR – Roadside Attractions – PG 13 – 123 min. – Director:  Robert Redford – Script: James D Solomon, from a story with Gregory Bernstein – Cast:  James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Danny Huston, Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline – Moderate Release (700+ theatres)


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."