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movie review: The Conspirator

by Leonard Maltin
April 15, 2011 4:00 AM
11 Comments
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There’s nothing more frustrating than wanting a movie to be great and having to admit that it falls short. At one point during The Conspirator I found myself willing it to be more exciting and dynamic, to no avail. It isn’t bad, but it never scales the heights of greatness its story promises and demands.

If nothing else, it is worth seeing for James McAvoy’s persuasive performance as a Union captain who is handed the thankless task of defending a woman (Robin Wright) whose son conspired with John Wilkes Booth. McAvoy’s quiet strength and conviction elevate every scene he’s in, even when he’s sharing the screen with such—

—formidable actors as Kevin Kline and Tom Wilkinson. (What’s more, his American accent is flawless.)

The screenplay, by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, reminds us that history always has lessons to impart that have resonance today. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, members of his cabinet were willing to forego basic laws of justice for the “greater good” of the country, which was still suffering the effects of the Civil War. McAvoy plays Frederik Aiken, whose mentor—a distinguished son of the South—insists that he is the only one who can guarantee that Mary Suratt receives a fair trial and isn’t condemned without due process. Clearly, it is this conflict that attracted Robert Redford to the project as director, and while his film is well-mounted and well-cast, it lacks urgency and dramatic impact.

Robin Wright’s character, Mary Suratt, is underwritten, robbing the actress of a chance to present us a multi-dimensional performance. Others in the cast, including Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, and Justin Long, do their best, but only McAvoy makes an indelible impression.

The Conspirator is the initial release from The American Film Company, which is dedicated to presenting historical subject matter. I don’t doubt the founders’ good intentions, but I sincerely hope their subsequent movies are more successful than this middling effort.

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11 Comments

  • LiveFreeOrDie1776 | April 28, 2012 11:58 PMReply

    Robert "The Red" Redford simply cannot be trusted with the telling of any history of the United Sates. His bias against our higher good is legendary.

    For Redford to call his film company, "The American Film Co" is no less laughable than the anti-Christian, anti-First Amendment ACLU calling themselves "The American Civil Liberties Union" or the hostile anti-God bullies at the Marxist fifth column "The People for the American Way" to claim they speak for more than a radical minority of deceived degenerates.

    A beautifully filmed, acted and written but craftily biased and thinly veiled propaganda piece by a man and den of vipers who despise America and seek to exploit, embellish, revise and fabricate our best and amazing American heritage at every turn.

    When will Redford make a film about the Armenian Genocide or Pol Pot or Stalin for their crimes against justice and humanity? You never will see that film as Redford and the ne0-Trotskyite Hollywood czars never met a villain they did not love nor attempt to be devil's advocate for especially when the villain is one of their own.

    An ignorant and passive movie going public coupled with time being the ally of deceit is a recipe for disaster.

    A real tear jerker for inane weaklings with glazed over eyes and a hunger for tuning their instruments of praise to mourning.

    Having watched this film post-President Obama' devouring of the 4th, 10th, 1st and 2nd Amendments and his soft-dictatorial erosion of the separation of powers I could not help but think that the movie was filmed in 2012 and was an allegory for his treachery and attempts to avenge the victims of a long bygone era by punishing all Americans now living?

  • Will See | April 24, 2011 11:53 AMReply

    There is some great history here, courtesy of Robert Redford, and it not by any means "overblown" to see the similarities between Gitmo and 911 trials implied here, as these were in fact raging controversies during the Military Trial then.

    What is strangely missing from the story is HOW did they catch young "Johnny SurratT" which Redford seems to have been pressured not to expose, though he does clearly show you that Mary Surratt's attorney Frederick Aiken, talks to Jesuit Priests that have him hidden away.
    Google John Surratt, to see him hiding in Rome at the Vatican, which is where he was identified and later arrested. Rome backed the South, and the papal powers were involved in the murder of Lincoln. Redford's film only scratches the surface here, and it is obviously a big missing part of the story. There are STILL mysteries about the Lincoln assassination that most Americans don't know- and one of them is how the Vatican and foreign banks were behind the war intended to destroy the US Republic.

  • Jim Coyne | April 19, 2011 11:52 AMReply

    I saw the film on its opening on April 15 and was totally absorbed in its every aspect:-- the cast, the cinematography, the story, the editing, the invisible hand of the director -- without benefit (so-called) of any critical commentary. I found the story filled with anguish, not cheap melodrama; the acting was honest, disciplined, and utterly compelling. I cannot believe I saw the same film as these critics, who obviously wrote their reviews before they saw the film. Their comments are based on their hackneyed expectations and political biases -- not on aesthetic principles. Redford is an artist and director of the highest sensibility; a hack like Leonard Maltin couldn't carry his jock strap.

  • B. Peters | April 18, 2011 5:57 AMReply

    There's nothing more frustrating than KNOWING a movie ISi great but that it will never get rave reviews because movie goers (and alas cristics as well) only want to be mesmorized by modern movie wizardry.
    This is a story many of us never knew (thanks to our inept American history courses), beautifully told without fanfare or glitz. Thank you Robert Redford and cast for making a movie we should all applaud...please don't give up in making movies that really matter ...if only more of us cared about knowing more about our past and learning from it.

  • Linda | April 17, 2011 1:40 AMReply

    I was not expecting this movie to be wildly exciting. It is just what it should be - quietly passionate. I have read volumes and volumes about Lincoln & about his murder. This is the first time I've seen the story recounted from this perspective.
    In addition, I have never read this story with an explanation of the abandonment of principles of American justice that took place. Very interesting food for thought.
    Finally, I found the movie to be visually beautiful. The lighting and camerawork are very interesting.

  • Jeffrey | April 16, 2011 10:18 AMReply

    The consensus about this film is not that its bad, but that should have been great and it isn't.

  • John | April 16, 2011 9:43 AMReply

    The story is one which needed to be made- I just wanted it to be told well. Formulaic from the very first scene. All the parts were one dimensional caricatures, and at over two hours, there was plenty of time to develop characters. Almost amateurish, unforgiveable for a Redford film. The acting was predictable, cringe-worthy in places (when Anna hears her mother's voice in the courtroom, and calls out for her - come on!). Is Redford going to become the Mel Brooks of the dramatic films, where he gets name actors, a promising story, an audience that really, REALLY wants to like the movie, and then completely disappoints with the final product?

  • bruce conger | April 16, 2011 4:52 AMReply

    The character of Mary Surrat was very well written. You see her balancing her belief in her innocence with her admitting her feelings of anger against the North, her devout Catholic faith, and how determined she was to save her son even if it meant dying in his place. She portrays the hopelessness of her plight extremely well.

    I don't know what else Leonard wanted from Wright's portrayal. She showed me plenty.

  • Daniel Makara | April 16, 2011 3:15 AMReply

    Have to agree with Leonard. It's not Robin Wright's acting that falls short, it's that her character was underwritten. There's a very low budget trailer for another movie on Mary Surrat on TouTube. The clips show her home life,(she was beaten by her alcoholic husband), raising her children etc... I have no idea what this YouTube movie is like, but it seems to have an element that The Conspirator could have used to it's advantage. Also, for all it's historical accuracy... read the actual account of the hanging and the immediate events leading up to it. It's far more horrific than what the film portrayed .

  • Dave | April 15, 2011 8:05 AMReply

    Are you kidding Leonard?

    "The Conspirator" is a great film, one which needed to be made. I saw it this noontime, April 15th, on this anniversary of Lincoln's death. A very well crafted film, I hope for more like it from the American Film Company! When it comes to shining a bright light on how easily some of our leaders can subvert the Constitution, and how willingly the American people become a party to this in the name of "security" and the "national good", this movie should win rave notices, instead of the usual critics' tripe.

    "Lest we forget . . . "

  • Jason | April 15, 2011 5:37 AMReply

    Dang, I was hoping this one was good too. Glad to hear James McAvoy does a good job. He's definitely one of my favorite actors so I might catch this one on DVD.

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