Monday, April 25, 2011
The Conspirator (Release Date: 4-15-2011)
The Conspirator stars James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, whom we first meet as a a soldier in the Northern Army during civil war time. After the battle is over, Aiken returns home to pursue a budding career as a lawyer, his best friend from the war (Justin Long) and his sweetheart (Alexis Bledel) still at his side. But Aiken’s run of good luck reaches its end when President Lincoln is suddenly assassinated, and Aiken’s boss and associate Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) appoints him to the defense of a Ms. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a keeper of a boarding house suspected of contributing to the conspiracy to take Honest Abe’s life. Beyond begrudging at first, Aiken takes the case, but as more is revealed to him, his hard, northern heart begins to soften.
The average American (myself previously included) knows this much; John Wilks Booth killed Abraham Lincoln, end of story. The Conspirator get points for observing a critical piece of American history that has been largely glossed over by text books and time, but The Conspirator’s aspirations are more far-reaching than a mere history lesson. Much of the movie is focused on just how stacked the deck was against Surratt from the start, the Union’s War Committee assigned to the case rather than a jury, all with an emphasis on delivering expedient justice to a wounded America. If the words, ‘Patriot Act,’ don’t immediately come to mind when you read this, then I would have to imagine that you call the bottom of a rock home, or at the very least haven’t seen the movie in question. The stance that the constitution should be observed regardless of circumstance strikes me as an agreeable one, but after being constantly force-feed political positions for over two hours, it’s kind of tough not to gag. Redford’s heart is, by my estimation, in the right place, but the political messages of The Conspirator have all the subtlety of a Looney Tunes episode.
The actors don’t fair much better, McAvoy giving a semi-inspired performance that manages to far outshine the rest. Wright is steeped in full-on Virgin Mary symbolism, nearly always hooded, with rosary, and appearing to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. Such an over-the-top character/performance likely has more to do with script and direction than actor, but that doesn’t make her ever-lasting torment any less cartoonish. Long and Bledel are in way over their heads, their lack of accents and olden-time mannerisms completely obliterating any credibility in as far as time and place are concerned. Even Wilkinson, whom I’ve never before seen give a poor performance, only sports an accent in every other scene, which proves both confusing and distracting.
The art direction is also somewhat wayward, though not as lost as the thespians. Cameras and costumes alternate between attempted realism and striking stylization, never fully failing nor flying in either stance. The Conspirator is the kind of movie that many will see and rave about because it tells an unfamiliar story in a certain political climate. But no matter how much you love this film, The Conspirator loves itself more, its pride-filled grandstanding not once exiting the frame. I suppose you should bare affection towards your own work, but The Conspirator goes a step beyond that: It’s smug, self-satisfied, blunt, and, worst of all, not terribly engaging. Ask me to sign a petition to ensure civil liberty during times of war, and I’m there. Ask me to sit through The Conspirator again... not so much.