Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Historical
Opens locally Friday, April 15th, 2011
Run Time: 2 hours, 1 minute, Rated PG-13
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright Penn, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson
Directed by Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs, The Horse Whisperer, Quiz Show, Ordinary People)
"The Conspirator" could have been called "The Lincoln Lawyer" had that name not already been taken. It is a historical by-the-book courtroom drama that tells the tale leading up to and following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln back in April of 1865. We all know that John Wilkes Booth shot the president from behind as he watched a play from the balcony of a theatre show. What I never knew, until this movie, was the massive conspiracy and the pre-meditation surrounding the assassination. It was much more than a "lone gunman" bursting into a theatre.
The Plot. The movie is not centered around the actual assassination of Lincoln, but more focused on a trial that followed. Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is a Union war-hero and young lawyer, who begrudgingly is asked to defend Mary Surratt (Penn). Of the 8 people arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the president, Surratt was the only woman, and her role in the conspiracy was cloudy. She owned a boarding house where Booth and the others met and planned a widespread attack on Lincoln and other government officials, and by association, was accused as part of the plot. As you could imagine, the nation was thirsty to exact their revenge, or find justice, as they mourned their beloved president. Being a woman in 1865 brought it's own challenges, and the more Aiken learns about her role in the conspiracy, the more he wants to fight for her fair treatment.
The movie's title "The Conspirator" is a bit misleading, as it should have been called "The Trial." It is less concerned with the conspiracy to assasssinate Lincoln and more on showing us a straight-forward legal drama that for all intents and purposes, is very dry and boring. The film actually begins very strong, not only re-creating the events around the assassination but creating a tense atmosphere of suspense. It is surely interesting to find out that Lincoln's assassination was only part of a bigger plan, but after the opening scenes the movie is textbook courtroom schlock.
All of the cliched legal drama staples are in place. We get the up-and-coming lawyer who doesn't want to defend his subject, but grows more and more invested in his case...almost to the point of ruining his career. Gasp! The defendant, in this case Robin Wright Penn, gives a mysterious portrayal that has us questioning her innocence...is she really involved or being wrongly prosecuted? The only variation from the courtroom standard is how one-sided the court acted back in 1865...when it comes to killing our president, the court was not interested in "fair & balanced" and more interested in feeding the country with sweet revenge so they could make sense of the tragedy and move on.
Add to the "same old, same old" blend, some glaring examples of bad casting, such as Justin Long as a Union war pal to McAvoy, and the sum of all "The Conspirators" parts doesn't add up to anything worthwhile.
Bottom Line. Redford is obviously a legendary actor and has great success in directing as well. But here he plays it too close to formula. There are some modern parallels drawn with injustice, and terrorism, media & fame. But 2 hours later, the most intriguing portion of "The Conspirator" came in the first ten minutes, making you wonder if there was really enough here to make a feature film.
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