Robert Redford’s new historical drama The Conspirator is the first prestige picture of 2011 and it’s also (arguably) the worst film of the year so far.
Oh, I hear you out there: “Really? Worse than even Season of the Witch and Your Highness?”
Yes. Way worse. Season of the Witch and Your Highness might have been bad films but they knew they were bad. They never truly aspired to be anything other than bad. The problem with The Conspirator is that it’s obviously meant to be a great and important film. It’s meant to shape public debate. We’re supposed to feel like better people for having sat through it and the filmmakers are supposed to be better people just for having made it. There’s a smugness to these type of self-styled “prestige pictures” that elevates their badness beyond anything to be found in Your Highness. Indeed, if the makers of Your Highness appeared to be getting high off of herb than the people behind The Conspirator are high off of their own good intentions and that makes them for more annoying.
The Conspirator is based on the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman to be arrested, tried, and subsequently executed as a result of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The execution of Mary Surratt was controversial because 1) she was a civilian tried by a military tribunal, 2) the evidence against her was largely circumstantial (she owned the boarding house where the conspirators — including her son John Surratt — supposedly met), and 3) she was a woman.
Now, I have to confess that I’m secretly kind of a big history nerd and — unlike most of this film’s audience — I was already familiar with the story of Mary Surratt before I sat down in the theater. The story of the Lincoln Conspiracy and the aftermath of the assassination is a really interesting one that is full of all sorts of weird twists and turns and odd characters all conspiring together and being mysterious. It has all the makings of a great grindhouse film.
However, director Robert Redford is too good to make a grindhouse movie. No, he has something important to say and, as a result, The Conspirator becomes yet another one of those tedious films where every line of dialogue and every image is supposed to make us go, “Hey, they might be talking about post-Civil War America but, by golly, this is relevent to our post-911 lives! OH MY GOD!” So, we get Tom Wilkinson showing up randomly to give speeches about why military tribunals are the work of the devil. Wilkinson is playing a historical figure Reverdy Johnson but they might as well have just renamed him “Prestige Actor Cast As Mouthpiece.” And then Kevin Kline (as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, though they should have just called him Dick Cheney) is there to go, “The whole world has changed.” Meanwhile, the camera lingers over the conspirators being held in their dirty cells with bags over their heads (“OH MY GOD, HONEY!” we’re supposed to shout at our loved ones, “THAT’S JUST LIKE GUANTANAMO BAY! WOW!”) and then we’re constantly reminded that Mary Surratt was a devout Catholic and that America in 1865 viewed Catholicism in much the same way that America views Islam in 2011.
And, yeah, we get it and I’m not saying that director Redford is incorrect in his message or his beliefs. However, a boring, heavy-handed film is just as boring and heavy-handed regardless of where its heart may lie. The Conspirator is so busy being good for us that it forgets that it needs to entertain as well. It preaches at us but it never bothers to engage us.
Mary Surratt is played by Robin Wright and she gives a good performance but because of the way the film is structured, Mary is never allowed to become anything more than a convenient symbol. Instead, most of the film’s screen time is given to James McAvoy who plays the young lawyer who reluctantly defends her at trial. Now, I love James McAvoy. I’ve loved him ever since Atonement and that’s why it’s kinda heart breaking to see what a bad performance he gives here. He’s good for the first ten minutes or so of the film but then he’s assigned to defend Ms. Surratt and I swear to God, he doesn’t stop yelling for the rest of the movie. It’s not totally McAvoy’s fault. As written, his character doesn’t really have much to do other than get mad. As an actor, McAvoy can do anger quite well (again, check out Atonement) but here his anger just seems to spring out of nowhere. At first, he is unconcerned about Mary Surratt and resentful that he has to defend her. Then suddenly, he’s going all late style Al Pacino on everyone.
Justin Long shows up as McAvoy’s best friend and seriously, if you’re making a historical drama, you don’t cast a guy who automatically makes you think, “He’s a PC and I’m a Mac.” It’s not Long’s fault. He’s a likable actor and he’s likable here even if his character doesn’t have any reason for being in the movie. It’s just that typecasting is a bitch. Alexis Bedel gets the thankless role of “rich snob who loses faith in her boyfriend” while Evan Rachel Wood, playing Mary Surratt’s daughter, is the only member of the cast who actually seems to truly connect with the material.
Regardless of the film’s historical accuracy, everything about The Conspirator feels false. I don’t know if it was just the copy that I happened to see but the entire movie just looks like crap, a combination of soft-focus blurriness and respectfully muted colors. This is another one of those films where the interior scenes are lit so that it appears that sunlight is just flooding in through the windows, making any white article of clothing just appear to throb with radiation. Seriously, I had a headache after watching 30 minutes of this film.
As I said previously, there’s a great grindhouse movie waiting to be made out of this material. For instance, did you know that Boston Corbett — the man who shot John Wilkes Booth — was also a religious fanatic who years earlier, in order to resist being tempted by a prostitute, castrated himself with scissors? Also, did you know that Henry Rathbone — the army major who was sitting with Lincoln at the time of the assassination — was years later named Ambassador to Germany and, while in Germany, suffered a sudden nervous breakdown that led to him chopping off his wife’s head? Also, one of the men who was arrested (though eventually released and never charged) for taking part in the conspiracy was Frances Tumblety who later moved to England where he would later become one of the many men suspected of being Jack the Ripper?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
However, The Conspirator is too busy being important to bother with being interesting. While a grindhouse version of the story would have been both interesting and thought-provoking, The Conspirator is just a smug film that is never manages to live up to its own rather high opinion of itself.