The Conspirator – 2010

Directed by Robert Redford

Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Alexis Bledel

Written by James D. Solomon

“…I too, hold sacred our rights, counselor.  But they count, not at all, if our nation ceases to exist.”

These words from Secretary of War Stanton (Kline) to Lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) form the crux of the debate of The Conspirator.   In the wake of the Civil War, after President Lincoln is assassinated and an attempt is made on the VP and Secretary of State, a group of conspirators is rounded up and brought to trial via military tribunal.  One of them, Mary Suratt (Wright) is the mother of another missing suspect and owner of a boarding house where many of them met.  Many think that she is being held as bait to lure in her son, John, but as the hour draws near to the end of the trial, it becomes apparent that she will be sacrificed in the name of justice, or vengeance.  Or both.

Aiken is brought into the trial by family friend Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson).  In the interests of a fair trial, Aiken goes to great lengths.  As history points out, his efforts to give Suratt a fair trial are doomed to fail, apparently by a demand for swift and absolute punishment by the Department of War, lead by Stanton, and ultimately supported by newly anointed President Andrew Johnson.

The movie serves up a thinly veiled allegory for the military detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, held since the tragic events of 9/11.  On one side, we have those who feel that our rights are less important than the security of our country.  On the other, we have those who believe that without these rights, our country is already lost.  Most would agree with the latter, it seems.  The point of the film, it would seem, is to show that sacrificing one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for the specter of security is not a new thing.  It is Ben Franklin, after all, who said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

This is heady stuff for a major motion picture, famous director or not, and, not surprisingly, the movie tanked.  This does not mean it is not a good film.  It is well made; good acting, great set design, relevant writing.  As with many of Redford’s directorial efforts, this one takes forever to get where it is going, even if it looks good while going there.  His belief that most people would like to hear as much as they see in a movie has always been at odds with the common movie goer.  As a result, you usually see people who never go to movies attending his movie.  You know, the kind of folks who consider Never Cry Wolf a good night out…for the decade.

James McAvoy is reason enough to watch this movie.  His stare is like no other, and his ability to master accents is keen.  He makes the adjustment from brave war veteran to defeated idealist somewhat seamlessly.  The movie would have been unwatchable were it not for his charismatic performance.  Wilkinson is a go to guy for wizened idealist.  He mixes a realism into everything he does.  Justin Long is just about the same guy he always is: the college buddy who never matures.  Wright lends some dignity to the role of the doomed prisoner.  She doesn’t have much to do here but look austere.  Evan Rachel Wood is intriguing as Anna Suratt, who makes a difficult choice that most would find a no win.  And she suffers well for it.  Kline does one of those lefty playing a righty turns: remorseless and without nuance.

This movie is worth your time, primarily if you are interested in historical drama, or if you appreciate, like the reviewer does, the stare of James McAvoy.

(***1/2 out of *****)


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