Review of Redford’s “The Conspirator”: A Gripping Historical Drama

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? The category – “4th Grade History.”
Q: Who shot President Abraham Lincoln?
A: John Wilkes Booth, of course.
OK, that was a lay-up. Fine…good for you. Now let’s play a little hardball.
Q: Who was the first woman to be executed by the United States government and for what offense?
Yes, I know it’s a two-part question, but it’s my game and I make the rules.

The answer is certainly not common knowledge – and not taught in any elementary textbook covering American history. But leave it tofilmmaker Robert Redford — who is certainly drawn to historical/political dramas — to tackle this notorious subject, which remains one of the most fascinating subplots in our country’s tumultuous history.

The horrifying news spread quickly across the country that was already in a state of turmoil and bereavement in the wake of the Civil War. The President had been shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC – and the very next morning (April 15, 1865), died from a shot to the head from a .44 caliber Derringer at the hands of Mr. Booth. The unforgiving government needed to act – and quickly – to satisfy the country’s thirst for revenge into this heinous act. As Booth went on the lam, seven men and one woman were arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State. That woman was Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house where Booth and his men (which included Surratt’s son, John) would meet and allegedly plan. Her trial, outlandishly held in front of a military tribunal rather than in the confines of a civil court, is at the heart of Mr. Redford’s gripping courtroom drama, The Conspirator.

Defending Mary Surratt (a stone-faced Robin Wright) is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an officer who is just covering from combat while he fought for the union. He wants no part of this case, nor does he allow himself to believe in Surratt’s possible innocence for a minute. However, it is Senator Reverdy Johnson (the always magnetic Tom Wilkinson) who reminds him of the constitutional rights given to our citizens and thus persuades him into taking the case, albeit with extreme reluctance. His opposition? Just about the entire United States government, led by the mighty Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), Lincoln’s Secretary of War whose actions and demeanor eerily resemble one Dick Cheney in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. He wants revenge – at any cost, no matter that there may be no tangible proof that Ms. Surratt had anything to do with conspiring against the president. In addition, the inexperienced Aiken must try his case in front of a panel of Union Army officers (headed by Colm Meaney) who seem more eager in declaring the defendant’s guilt than allowing any evidence that may in fact by beneficial to her. Danny Huston, always cast as the heavy, plays the shrewd prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt.

The all-star cast, for the most part, turns in some splendid performances. McAvoy is quickly becoming one of the industry’s strongest (young) leading men – and here, he holds the film together in impressive fashion. Not only do we see him wrestle with his feelings concerning his defendant, but his own domestic issues as well — mainly, wanting to begin his life anew and marry the girl (Alexis Bledel) who waited for him while he was off fighting in the war. Kevin Kline lights up the screen as always – and it is great to see him take on such a ruthless character. As Mary Surratt, Wright is stoic and valiant – but I wish we were able to see a bit more emotion from this woman who is caught in such a helpless situation. She rarely, if ever, lets her guard down and we never get to see what the character is feeling deep down. She seems too detached, too apathetic. The wonderful character actor Stephen Root has a small turn as a key witness for the prosecution. Root makes the very most of his screen time, as he lies and fumbles his way on the witness stand. The one terrible misfire in casting here is comedic actor Justin Long who plays Aiken’s close friend and injured Civil War soldier. Here, Long looks completely out of place – like a square peg in a round hole.

The overall look of The Conspirator is strikingly authentic. It is very clear that much research went into all details — from the sinister looking conspirator hoods to the 19th century handcuffs to the small accessories on the aristocracy – all providing us with a genuine sense of the time. Louise Frogley’s costumes are spot on and Melissa M. Levander’s production design provides a true sense of time and place – creating a long ago Washington DC from their shooting locales in Savannah, Georgia. Redford always seems to be very aware of lighting  – and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography works from a vast palette of rich colors.

The Conspirator is the debut film of The American Film Company whose mission is to produce movies about true events from our nation’s past. In teaming up with the studio, Redford was forced to work on a much smaller, more modest budget than he had become accustomed to. Not that you could tell. The grandeur is still clearly up on the screen — and though a historical drama, the film is certainly entertaining and hopefully will appeal to a wider, more commercial audience. The courtroom scenes are quite intense and the intimate scenes between McAvoy and Wright are gripping. And though the film never gets preachy or overly political in any way, what comes across loud and clear is that we are witnessing the unfortunate case of one woman being tried in what proved to be a mockery of the judicial system. Panic, fear and vengeance prevailed over reason and the rights of a human being who may or may not have been guilty. For those familiar with Redford’s work in front of and behind the camera, you can see why he may have been easily drawn into this subject matter – it is an American story that raises many questions about the ideals on which this country was founded. It illustrates heroism and corruption at the highest of levels – and though it never reaches the depths I was hoping it would go to, The Conspirator is certainly worth seeing — and yes, an important, provocative film.

RATING:  
Director:   Robert Redford
Year:         2011

8 Thoughts on 8 David Lynch Films

Artisphere in Washington DC is celebrating the magnificent works of film auteur David Lynch by screening his works every Wednesday of this month. In honor of this well-deserved tribute, the film writers of the DC-based online entertainment magazine Brightest Young Things (myself included) have chosen to write a few personal thoughts on a film of their choosing — by Sir Lynch.

I personally had to go with Blue Velvet, for many reasons. My commentary on this 1986 masterpiece is below. If you are not acquainted with the film staff at BYT, they have some pretty great writers who know their movies. If you’d like to read some thoughts on such works as Wild at Heart, The Straight Story, Mullholland Drive, Dune (yes, Dune), Lost Highway, Inland Empire — and the mega cult classic Eraserhead, then click on the BYT Loves Lynch article. The BYT film writers include Alan Z., William A., Zach G., Logan D., Erin H., and BYT editor Svetlana L.

Here are my initial thoughts on Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

It all starts – with an ear. A severed human ear, decomposing in a lush green field. The camera slowly zooms in to the canal as the sound amplifies and the busy ants swarm around the flesh. Thus begins David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, a modern-day film noir with elements of surrealism thrown in for good measure. As we get a closer look inside that rotting ear, we are invited in to Lynch’s world of a dark and violent underbelly lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful suburban logging town.

Blue Velvet is certainly not for everyone — a polarizing film, if there ever was one (you may recall Siskel and Ebert’s famous argument over the film’s merits). Regardless, it garnered Lynch his 2nd Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Director,’ on the heels of Woody Allen calling it the single best movie of 1986. Since its theatrical release – through VHS, laserdiscs, DVD’s and now Blu-Ray — the film has reached legendary cult status, playing on many a midnight movie screen.

College student Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Lynch fave Kyle Maclachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to see to his ailing father when he stumbles across the detached ear. He takes the ear to the police, but his own voyeuristic tendencies take over and Jeffrey proceeds to begin his own investigation, with the help of the police detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The ear draws him deeper into his hometown’s sordid underworld, where he meets the captivating torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose son and husband have been kidnapped in return for sexual favors by the sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, at the top of his game in a career-resurrecting role). Jeffrey becomes further involved, running into a cast of sleazy characters, trying his best to save the helpless Dorothy – and later, himself.

Lynch had the idea for this film in the early 1970’s – before his first feature film Eraserhead (another cult classic) was released. After his marvelous work on The Elephant Man (1980) and the failure that was Dune (1984), he was given complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges with Blue Velvet, culminating in a truly personal work. His casting choices here are right on the mark. Rossellini no longer had to cling on to those Lancome advertisements – she is finally given the opportunity to test her acting chops in a meaty role. With all that her character must endure at the hands of Frank, it is a truly courageous performance – and opened up a whole new career for Ms. Rossellini. Dean Stockwell plays Ben, a drug dealer and one of Frank’s accomplices. His lip-synched performance to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is both chilling and somewhat comical and makes for one of the film’s highlights. Laura Dern turns in a solid performance as the high school girl who is a perfect paradox for Dorothy and all that she represents. Maclachlan holds the film together quite – he is strong when he needs to be (remember that tremendous backslap to Dorothy in a moment of pleasure and rage) and completely naïve and vulnerable when at the mercy of Frank. The film also delivers one of cinema’s greatest villains of all-time in Frank Booth, played deliciously by Mr. Hopper. This guy is one scary sociopath. Between his palpable Oedipal issues, vulgar mouth, peculiar sexual proclivities, and that oxygen mask (which Hopper later said was Amyl nitrite) – Frank Booth remains one of film’s most iconic characters. On top of the stellar performances, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is a true stand-out, creating that film noir atmosphere while also helping to create a haunting mood.

The film isn’t all that’s polarizing though – Lynch himself is one of film’s most divisive figures. You either love him or can’t watch his stuff. There are many directors who I greatly admire, but there are a small handful that I would call true auteurs – David Lynch is surely one of those very few. Perhaps it is because of his background and work in the visual arts, but Lynch is the only director who comes to mind where you can take a snapshot from any moment in one of his films – and it comes off as a true work of art. His attention to color, to place, to character, and to the human psyche is truly unique. So unique that many dub his style to be “Lynchian.” He changed television with his phenomenal opus, Twin Peaks and has continued to perplex and dazzle his audience with one daring work after another. But it is Blue Velvet that, to date, is his seminal work.

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