Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Conspirator

Spoiler alert-o-meter: I won't give away the ending. But you can read all about it here.

Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt in Robert Redford’s new flick The Conspirator, about the Lincoln assassination and subsequent conspirators’ trial. Mary Surratt and her son and daughter, recently moved from the south, ran a boarding house in Washington, where her son, John, met with John Wilkes Booth and others who planned clandestine political shenanigans. The civil war was winding down and of course we all know how that worked out for the rebel south. They were pissed off, to say the least. It is in this atmosphere of never give up, never surrender that The Conspirator begins.

After Booth shoots Lincoln, Mary Surratt is arrested and is to stand trial as a co-conspirator along with a group of young men, many of whom John knew . The movie posits the question, Was Mary in on the whole assassination plot from the beginning? Or was she an innocent woman whose only crime was having a son who couldn’t give up the fight? But John Surratt is not among the men standing trial. He fled town a couple weeks before the assassination. So, why was Mary arrested?

Robin Wright (now entirely Penn free!) plays Mary as beleaguered, dour, secretive. The part does not call for big drama, but Wright endows the character with saintly calmness: Mary would rather pay for her son’s sins than see him arrested and tried. The esteemed statesman Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), takes it upon himself to see Mary Surratt gets a fair trial. Since it’s basically still wartime (the war is technically over, but not all generals from the south have surrendered), she is not being tried by a jury of her peers but by a military tribunal. At the insistence of the secretary of war Edwin Stanton (played with righteous indignation by Kevin Kline) Mary Surratt is to be used as an example, and found guilty no matter the trial’s outcome. 

Reverdy Johnson assigns young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to defend Mary in the courtroom. Here the movie both kicks into gear and stumbles. The story is interesting enough, even for those who paid attention in American History: everyone considers Mary Surratt just as guilty as the other proven conspirators. Aiken is war hero for the Union who agrees that Mary is guilty as hell, why should he defend her?

It’s an order and Aiken is a lawyer first and foremost. He’s smart, if a little naive. Digging into the facts, he realizes not all is as it seems. He rips apart the stories of the two witnesses for the prosecution, which is led by Danny Huston, in righteous bad-guy mode. He also starts visiting the boarding house to see Mary’s daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) who is understandably upset that her mother is on trial or her brother being sought as if he were a murderer. She’s hiding something. Mary too seems to be hiding something during Aiken’s visits to her cell. What was John Surratt really up to?

James McAvoy plays Aiken as if he is arguing a case in a John Grisham adaptation or trying out for a part in the latest TV show about younger lawyers. This is the mid 1800s but he moves and acts too petulantly, too impatiently. It’s like McAvoy studied the wrong movies and read the wrong books to prepare for the role. He looks good in a beard, but comes across as too contemporary. This is in contrast to many of the other players who have mastered the accents, language, and manners of the time. A beard does not a Civil War era character make. I know what you’re saying: Unreliable Narrator, you just admitted you know nothing about history. That doesn’t matter—what matters is that McAvoy’s Aiken fit well into the rest of the movie, and he stands out as a distraction.

That said, he certainly doesn’t ruin the movie. McAvoy’s miscasting grew on me, especially in the scenes where Aiken starts to come around to the facts of the case. Or rather, to the non-lies. It’s fun to watch him deconstruct the pre-planned testimony of the two witless witnesses to the chagrin of the tribunal. One of the witnesses is played by the wonderful Stephen Root, who has been showing up in lots of surprisingly places lately including Cedar Rapids. He does comedy and historical courtroom drama!

I saw The Conspirator the afternoon it opened. I knew nothing about it except it had to do with Lincoln’s assassination. I stayed away from all reviews—which I try to do anyway if I think I might review the movie myself. I had no idea Robert Redford directed the movie until the closing credits. During the movie it was fun to recognize the actors. The sight of so many well-known faces (the flick also stars Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Norman Reedus, and Colm Meaney) can be distracting, especially for a movie that peddles in historical events. But without the Hollywood cast, The Conspirator would have played more like a History Channel docudrama with reenactments.

Redford’s direction is straightforward, letting the story and actors lead the way. It’s shot with a sepia tone and a gauzy lens. The politics are strictly liberal. At the end of the movie we are told that after this trial, all citizens arrested for a crime would be tried in a civilian courtroom in front of a jury of their peers (Guantanamo Bay much?). How you feel about The Conspirator depends on how you feel about the excitement and majesty of history and courtroom dramas.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Friday afternoon matinee, April 15th, 3:50. Price $8.50. Viewed solo. Snack-Fancy red licorice and a Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

Circumstance. And I quote: "The audience at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival has given its top U.S. dramatic prize to Maryam Keshavarz's 'Circumstance,' a Farsi-language look at a pair of teenage lesbians in contemporary Iran. Sundance Film Festival Official website writes: 'Splendidly constructed and saturated with a sumptuous sense of style and sensuality, Circumstance marks the arrival of an exciting, original talent. First-time feature writer/director Maryam Keshavarz registers a rare glimpse of forbidden love in today’s Iranian youth.'"

Crazy Stupid Love. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore. A young couple and an older couple going through dramady romantic escapades, while Ryan, a player, shows Steve, a shy, awkward dude, the ropes to picking up women. At least that's what I think happens. Along with some other stuff.

Everything Must Go. Will Ferrel stars in a movie based on a Raymond Carver short story. The movie's about a guy who's wife throws him out of the house (not quite what happened in the story) and he ends up living in the front yard. And since I based a movie on the same story, I happen to know it's Why Don't You Dance? But who wants to see a movie called that, when you could see one called Everything Must Go. My theory about movies based on short stories is that they have a better chance of being successful adaptations than those based on novels (too long to adapt well). I'm curious.

Larry Crowne. This one could be cute in a not-too-cloying way. Tom Hanks plays a guy who is fired from his job, downsized because he doesn't have a college degree. He goes back to school, and gets grumpy but cute teacher Julia Roberts. Lessons and love ensue. Tom Hanks also directs.

Tree of Life. Whatever this movie ends up being about, it will look gorgeous. Brad Pitt plays a father in some scenes, and later, after, Sean Penn plays one of his grown up sons. There's shots of oceans and sun and rain and other elements.


Liz's Mom said...

This is a gripping review. Interesting how you get so much colorful detail in this well written piece.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's Mom! Your daughter is my first reading and if it's a readable review, it's thanks to her.

Robin said...

I saw the previews for this recently and thought it looked interesting. Two draws for me: Robin Wright and James McAvoy. As always, you have written a great review!

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin. Catch it while you can. Sure to be pushed out of theaters by the next tent-pole pre-summer blockbuster.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Another well written, thought-provoking review by the Unreliable Narrator.
I have read quite a bit about the Civil War (mostly historical novels) but I don't know much about these these post-war events.

I do want to see this movie but might wait for the DVD. ;)

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Cyn. Yeah, this is one movie that won't lose impact translated to the small screen.