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Redford’s “Conspirator” Tells Untold Story

You know everything about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, right?

Well, do you know anything about Mary Surratt?

The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford, tells the true story of Surratt (Robin Wright-Penn), a woman accused of aiding John Wilkes Booth in assassinating the president.

The film begins with the the part of the story everybody knows, Booth shooting Lincoln while he’s on a date with his wife. Then, we meet Fredeick Aiken (James McAvoy), a young attorney assigned to defend Surratt.

Aiken was a union solider and at first thinks that Surratt is as guilty as the rest of the country. As the trial proceeds, Aiken realizes that this case isn’t about the guilt or innocence of one women, it’s about the message that the political powers-that-be want to send to the freshly unified South.

Will justice prevail?

“The Conspirator” tries to be a lot of things. It wants to be a historically accurate period piece, and a serious courtroom drama, and an examination of corrupt politicians. It’s about one woman’s convictions, and one man’s search for truth, and the rebuilding of a nation, and ultimately good vs. evil.

That’s a lot to fit into two hours.

There is a good story in there … somewhere. But it gets buried under everything else. Redford tries to include too many subplots and tries to make them all the focus of the film. If you want to make a courtroom drama, make the trial the focus. If you want to tell the story of Surratt and Aiken, make them the focus. If you want to tell about rebuilding the nation after the Civil War, concentrate on the politics and the politicians.

What kind of movie are you making? I would think this is the first thing you decide before starting a film. But, I’m not a filmmaker so I could be wrong.

I really wanted to like this film. It’s from Robert Redford, who’s pretty much Hollywood royalty and it has a strong cast (besides Wright and McAvoy) including: Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Klein, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, and Justin Long.

No, you read that right. It’s that Justin Long, a.k.a. Mac Guy, in a serious period drama. So as long as we’re talking about problems I had with this movie lets go there.

I love Justin Long. He’s cute, funny and always chooses fun, different roles. And it’s not that I don’t think he can be a dramatic actor. My problem was that here he was clearly only cast for comedic effect and used almost as a sight gag.

We’d be watching a super tense courtroom scene and the camera would cut to him and the audience instantly started laughing. But it wasn’t the laugh the filmmakers wanted. It wasn’t laughing at the character, it was laughing at Long, in a fake mustache, trying to be serious.

In a press conference following a screening of the film, when asked about the casting of Long, Redford admitted that he was cast as a comedic relief but he didn’t want it to be over-the-top. Long knew exactly what his place was in this film and played into those expectations but it was too much and distracted from the rest of the film.

The idea behind this film is great, taking a story that everyone knows and tackling it from a new angle is exciting. And the story of Surratt is interesting and deserves to be told.The execution of that idea wasn’t the best.

“The Conspirator” is a decent film, but given the players involved, I expected a lot more.



  1. Pingback: The Commuter: Vol. 42 « Art in the Rye Design - June 18, 2011

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