If you haven't noticed, Abraham Lincoln is hot.
Politicians of every stripe drop the 16th president's name at every opportunity to score points with their audience. In literature, Lincoln's life and presidency has received a wave of recent non-fiction attention and he wields a bloody ax while killing vampires in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (obviously a work of fiction). "Honest" Abe is appearing in films too, with the most notable being Lincoln in 2012, that will have Steven Spielberg directing Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
Robert Redford bests Spielberg by a year and a half with his latest directorial effort, The Conspirator. While technically not about Lincoln's life, concentrating instead on his assassination and the resulting trial, there is still enough of the man and the era to consider this a "Lincoln" picture.
Unfortunately, it isn't a very good one as The Conspirator is littered with false-steps that hold it back. Tedious from start to finish, Redford takes an interesting part of history and ruins it by delivering a pious film that is so heavy-handed and forced, it feels like we've witnessed a lecture rather than a movie when it ends.
The opening montage is a sign that The Conspirator is going to underwhelm. In just a few minutes we are taken from smoky battlefields strewn with bodies to Union victory parties to those plotting to kill Lincoln and other government officials to the actual assassination(s). Redford rushes to get past all this history that the audience may know about so briskly, it almost feels like an obligation to include these scenes. So cursory is the beginning of The Conspirator, Redford could have made everything move at double speed, just to get to what he wants to show us with the trial sequences.
When Redford pulls back the reigns to unspool the mystery and trial surrounding Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) as an accomplice to Lincoln's murder plot, I'm not so sure why he was in such a hurry. The courtroom sequences are fairly standard and the questions regarding Surratt's guilt or innocence aren't compelling in the slightest. Talented Scottish actor James McAvoy grows a scraggly beard and plays Frederick Aiken, Union officer and lawyer, assigned to defend Surratt. As he gets drawn into Surratt's world, friends desert him, confused as to why he is being consumed by this case, but he fights on in the name of due process.
Redford in the 21st century seems hell-bent on making a film about one subject, but relating it to the current state of the American political climate. In 2007, he directed Lions for Lambs, an under-the-surface critique on America's involvement in the Iraq War and its various off-shoots. Redford should have learned from the middling Lions for Lambs and refrained from turning The Conspirator into a similar sort of bait and switch film, but that's just what he did. Redford lays it on thick at every turn to make sure we get the bulletin that the American government abuses its citizens in the name of power whilst hiding behind the guise of justice, whether in the mid-19th century or last year.
While technically not about Lincoln’s life, there is still enough of the man and the era to consider The
Conspirator a “Lincoln” picture. Unfortunately, it isn’t a very good one. The film is littered with false-steps that
hold it back. Tedious from start to finish, director Robert Redford takes an interesting part of history and ruins it by
delivering a pious film that feels like a lecture rather than a movie.
I'm always up for some good old-fashioned truth telling when it comes to the sins of America's past, but I prefer documentaries or films that are more upfront in their message. There's something about getting preached to about today's messed up political situation while I want to see a movie about Lincoln's assassination that irks me. The script by James D. Solomon (TV's The Bronx is Burning) is dry and listless with far too many speeches about justice, the constitution and our rights. Redford, drawn to over-simplified and slanted political opinions as always, can't resist turning an actual historical event into a close-fisted sermon.
Another major hindrance is the fact The Conspirator is a terrible looking movie. Resembling an epic Masterpiece Theater production, it's the cheapest looking $20 million movie PBS never made. Flimsy sets, sparsely populated crowd scenes and barely constructed structures don't help convince me this takes place in 1865. Adding to the woeful look of the film was the choice to shoot all the interiors in natural light. In an attempt to create 19th century realism, this backfired due to the difficulty in seeing the actor's faces. People appear almost ghoulish when the shadows reflect off a face in certain ways. The film is so dimly shot, viewers with eye trouble might have a hard time following the faces of characters.
There are a lot of great actors wasted in The Conspirator. The already mentioned Wright and McAvoy are the leads, but the rest of the cast is full of very able performers such as Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Colm Meaney, Stephen Root and Danny Huston. Every single one of them are underused, lost in the maze of the story around Surratt's guilt/innocence and the film's hunger to deliver its underlying story.
Robert Redford's The Conspirator is the first, but surely not the last film coming to theaters involving Abraham Lincoln's life (or death) in some capacity. Let's hope it's the worst as it is muddled, sanctimonious and dreary. It's so exasperating that it almost makes me look forward to the film adaptation of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter next year. Almost.
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