The Conspirator begins with two injured Yankee soldiers – having barely survived a nasty battle against the Confederate army during the American Civil War – clinging to life and sharing a joke. The first, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), sets up the gag as a means of keeping his close-to-death buddy Nicholas Baker (Justin Long) from carking it. Before he can reach the punch line, Aiken and Baker are rescued and carried away by medics. The joke is left up in the air; never resolved. I mention this (arguably negligible) plot point because Robert Redford’s latest directorial effort often feels like half of a joke. The camera pans across the numerous fallen soldiers, finally landing upon a shivering and bloodied … James McAvoy and Justin Long. It felt as if I was watching one of those fake trailers from Tropic Thunder. That’s not to say that McAvoy and Long don’t have dramatic chops (if The Conspirator works at all, it’s because of McAvoy), but it doesn’t help that Redford and DOP Newton Thomas Sigel shoot the thing like the world’s most star-studded Natural History documentary, complete with harsh-lighting and blurring to remind us that this is taking place in the past. James D. Solomon’s exposition-heavy screenplay isn’t made better by Redford’s never-subtle touch. This does not feel like a real movie. It is an ‘epic’ along the lines of Entourage’s Medellin, or 30 Rock’s The Rural Juror. I suspect that if you showed one of the film’s scenes to someone out of context, they would assume it’s a not-particularly-good Funny or Die video.
Aiken and Baker survive the war, and two years later, live to see President Abraham Lincoln assassinated by actor/rebel John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell). Spurred by a mourning nation, Booth is hunted down and executed in a burning barn (accidentally evoking the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden). Booth’s co-conspirators are arrested, as is Marry Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a boarding house where the responsible parties plotted their attack. Aiken, a trained lawyer eager to escape the nightmarish war, is recruited by Senator Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Surratt against an unconstitutional military tribunal and the threat of becoming the first woman hanged by the U.S. government.
There is a whole lot of plot in just those four sentences, and plenty more where that came from. I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning the other fine actors in the cast, including Kevin Kline as a positively Rumsfeldian Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s daughter, Danny Huston as the lead prosecutor and Colm Meaney as head of the military commission trying Surratt, just to name a few. A number of other recognisable actors pop up, just for a moment, drawn no doubt to spend a few minutes in Redford’s presence. The cast do some nice work, but they struggle against the script and lackluster direction, which combine to make this fascinating true tale positively snoresom.
I’ve mentioned Bin Laden and Rumsfeld already; the parallels between post-Lincoln and post-9/11 America come thick and fast. As Surratt’s rights are essentially thrown away, we’re reminded of the Patriot Act. As the prisoners are left in their cells with bags over their heads, we’re reminded of Abu Ghraib. As Redford lingers too-long on the film’s upsetting climax, we’re reminded that a truly effective filmmaker need not smugly hammer home obvious metaphors and bombard his audience with guilt to get a point across. Sometimes less is much, much more. (Fun Fact: As we’re informed in the final reel, Frederick Aiken went on to become the first city editor of The Washington Post; the very paper where Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would later uncover the Watergate scandal, as documented in All The President’s Men … starring Robert Redford. Now that is a good movie.)
The Conspirator arrives in Australian cinemas July 28, 2011.