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.

Director:   Robert Redford
Year:         2011

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Robin Hood” (***)

I must admit that the initial reviews for this film made me somewhat wary of going to see it. And looking at the somewhat disappointing box-office returns through two weeks of the $200+ million blockbuster film, I think it has made many of the movie-going public wary of going, which is too bad because Ridley Scott’sRobin Hood” is a beautifully made and exciting new take on the legend we all know. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River” and “L.A. Confidential“) take a step back and have chosen not re-hash the same “robs from the rich” legend we’re all familiar with. Rather, they give us the story of how Robin Hood actually became an outlaw in the first place; a tale maybe we’re all not so very familiar with. At the end of the film, the titles read: “And So The Legend Begins,” setting the audience up for the proverbial Robin Hood myth that follows (and a sure-to-be-made sequel as well).

An archer fighting in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), Robin Hood and his companions decide to return home to England, and along the way, come upon Robert of Loxley who is fatally wounded by Godfrey (a diabolical, intense Mark Strong). Godfrey is in the process of assisting a French invasion of England and manages to trick the newly crowned King John into making him think he’s working on England’s behalf. Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) promises the dying Robert of Loxley that he will return his most cherished sword back to his father, Walter Loxley in Nottingham (played with tremendous humor and pathos by the brilliant Max von Sydow). The sword has an enigmatic inscription on it that pre-occupies Robin throughout. We learn that Robin Hood never knew much about his own father past the age of 6 and he struggles with himself to come to grips with his abrupt disappearance. Upon his return to Nottingham, the elderly Walter adopts him as his own and encourages Robin Longstride to impersonate his dead son and marry Marion (Cate Blanchett) or else the King will seize the land. Marion Loxley has just learned (after 10 long years) that her husband is not coming back, so this is a bit of a transition for her and she takes this new situation somewhat begrudgingly.

Meanwhile, we watch as Godfrey brutally pillages towns across the country under the pretext of collecting taxes for King John (Oscar Isaac). We can clearly see what kind of man King John is and what type of leader he will make right from the beginning and this continues throughout in his confrontational scenes with his mother (Eileen Atkins), to his treatment of the wise and loyal William Marshal (William Hurt) to how he treats his people. Robin Hood and Marion adapt to one another and Walter’s mirth is re-energized. He tells Robin that yes, he did know his father, who helped try to build a stronger, more liberalized society. A raid is made on Nottingham and there is a final battle between Godfrey and his men pitted against Robin Hood, King John and the English. After fighting bravely and faithfully for his land, Robin Hood is now seen as a threat to his people when King John ruthlessly declares him an outlaw. Thus, a legend is born.

Overall, this is a very entertaining, visually stunning film with an epic feel to it. I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. The costumes are exquisite, the locations and production design, authentic, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score, majestic. The film has its share of action and battle scenes, romance and some nicely incorporated humor in it as well. The performances too are excellent. Russell Crowe makes a fine Robin Hood; he is strong and has a regal presence to him. He shows strength or vulnerability, whatever is needed. Max von Sydow is a breath of fresh air, William Hurt  (as always) is terrific as William Marshal and we understand and feel for his trial throughout. Mark Addy plays Friar Tuck and he adds a nice touch of humor to the well-known character. Mark Strong plays a great villain – his overall look and demeanor fit quite well as the foil to Robin Hood. And like Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator” (another Scott film), Oscar Isaac’s King John is a spoiled, frightened little man who happens to wear the crown. Isaac does a wonderful job with it and we laugh at and detest him throughout. As for Cate Blanchett, I have mixed feelings. An extraordinary actress, to be sure, but I feel either she was simply miscast here or that Scott’s take on Marion may have been a bit rough around the edges. She seems too tough, too macho and her chemistry with Crowe seems a bit forced.

Some of the action sequences are difficult to follow and in the final battle, it does get a bit hokey for its own good (“For the love of God, Marion!” Robin Hood screams out when he sees his true love). Robin Hood’s slow-motion rise from the depths of the water and Marion exclaiming, “This is for you, Walter” were all a bit too much for me and surely could have been done without. And at times, the film falls into temporary lulls here and there. However, it is a grand and stately film. I remember enjoying Kevin Reynolds’Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991) very much. It has been a long while since I’ve seen it so I don’t think it fair at all to compare the two. In any case, they are two completely different stories. This one stands on its own just fine. A pleasurable, summer blockbuster movie experience to be sure. If you are one of the many who wanted to see it, but the reviews have kept you away, I would suggest that you go and see it while it’s still on the big screen.

Director:    Ridley Scott
Year:          2010

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Edge of Darkness”

I didn’t know much about this film going in except for the fact that (a) this was Mel Gibson’s first starring role in eight years and  (b) he was pissed off and not making any arrests. Good enough for me, so I checked it out.

Gibson plays Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven who is a single father to Emma (Bojana Novakovic), his 24 year-old daughter. I’m not giving anything away here (I don’t do spoilers in my reviews) by saying that she is brutally killed right in front of him and what we are left with is a very typical revenge film. Craven wants no part of working with his colleagues on this one. No…this time, it’s personal (Thank God he doesn’t say that). Unfortunately, we are not given much that is new here in Martin Campbell’s thriller. In conducting his own investigation as to who murdered his daughter, Craven uncovers not only his daughter’s secret life after graduating MIT, but also a world of corporate conspiracy with the government authorizing murders to make sure that their secrets stay secret. In his search, he runs across Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a government “cleaner” sent in to keep an eye on Craven and sweep up the remaining mess and all evidence left behind. During his search for answers (and ultimately, revenge) Craven is being followed, he gets assaulted, he cracks some heads, you know the drill.

What makes the film engaging is Mel Gibson. It’s his movie and if you’re a fan of his, you will most likely enjoy this one. At the core of the film, we have a father who loved his daughter more than anything else, and Gibson illustrates this well (as he usually does playing characters experiencing a terrible loss). We empathize with him and see his agony on his sleeve. There are some very sweet flashbacks here of Craven and his daughter and in the brief time we see him with his grown-up girl, we see a very close bond between the two. Danny Huston is well cast as Jack Bennett, the president of the company behind all of the mysterious murders, though it would be nice to see Huston play something other than the man we root against. The scenes between Gibson and Winstone are very intriguing and dramatic. We never know exactly where Jedburgh stands until the very end, which keeps you on your toes. Winstone has a powerful screen presence and you can see why he’s been a very busy actor lately (IMDB lists 8 films he has in pre-production at the time of this writing).

I suppose I was hoping for a much more original screenplay here. This is a revenge film that doesn’t veer too far away from recent others of its kind such as “Death Sentence,” “The Brave One,” “Taken” and “Law Abiding Citizen.” One sequence in particular upset me — you know when superheroes get caught (the Batman TV series was famous for this) and he isn’t just killed right there on the spot? No, that would just be too easy, right? So what do they do? They have to imprison their capture and conduct an “extra special” killing and delay the inevitable…the hero pulling off a grand escape from the dungeons of evil. I was surprised to get that here. So in the end, yes, Mel kept me watching, but overall, it doesn’t bring much that is new to the table…I was hoping for much more from his big comeback.

Director:  Martin Campbell
Year:        2010

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