They say film-makers need a point-of-view. Well, Hollywood actor-turn-director Robert Redford has made this a cornerstone of his directorial career. Best known for starring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, the on-screen veteran has followed a similar trajectory to Western icon, Clint Eastwood, taking his experience behind the camera. While his directorial debut began in 1980 with Ordinary People, he’s racked up a collection of quality films including: A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer and now The Conspirator.
Lions for Lambs was politically-charged, armed with a soapbox tag line “If you don’t STAND for something, you might FALL for anything.” It was clear that Redford was delivering a scathing attack on the U.S. Government at the time, using Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep to champion the cause. The result was entertaining and thought-provoking, but came across like mild propaganda in an effort to persuade his audience that something was wrong.
Michael Moore’s documentaries have been criticised for being too biased with his anti-Bush agenda, but it’s more difficult to spot in a feature film drama. Instead of trying to generate a “debate” like he did with Lions for Lambs, Redford has simply juxtaposed two periods of U.S. history in The Conspirator. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a massive turning point as John Wilkes Booth pulled a trigger and changed the course of American and world history.
However, Redford has focused on the post-assassination trial drawing on the fact that it was a group of conspirators that carried out plans to avenge the South. The story opens on Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a young counselor who must bag his own political beliefs to come to the aid of his defendant, Mary Surratt (Wright). As a legal drama and thriller, The Conspirator sets out to portray the events that followed Lincoln’s assassination as a nation bent on revenge carried out a swift brand of justice.
Redford’s interest in the unpopular story of Aiken and Surratt is the key in positioning it against the current political climate. To aid him in his poignant retelling of American history, he’s employed the talents of an underrated, yet sturdy ensemble including: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Evan Rachel Wood and Colm Meaney.
McAvoy keeps getting better with age, leaving a trail of quality films in his wake. His likability and youth are both strengths and weaknesses, giving him the qualities of a hero out-of-his-depth. Robin Wright is famous for her title role in The Princess Bride, but has been staging a comeback since that solid turn in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. She’s back on the map with a stern no-make up performance you’d expect from an in-form Laura Linney. The two stars deliver solid performances, which carry Redford’s vision, cushioned by the collective experience of their co-stars with the unfortunate miscasting of Justin Long, who just isn’t at home in the genre .
The performances are the main reason to see The Conspirator. Robert Redford can direct and delivers this story with a firm hand. His point-of-view feigns objectivity, but is simply an interpretation of documented events. The attempt to rely almost entirely on natural lighting gives the film a distinctive visual character, which is fitting – yet difficult to pull off with one shaft of light streaming in through the window becoming more of a cliche than a symbol.
At just over 2 hours, The Conspirator is a bit of a stretch… especially if American history is of little interest or consequence to you. The story’s juxtaposition with the here-and-now is thought-provoking, the performances hold strong and the film’s visual style is fascinating enough to draw comparisons with The Assassination of Jesse James. Unfortunately, the “subtle” propaganda slant taints the production a little and it has an unavoidable TV element with the legal court room drama taking precedence. The Conspirator remains powerful, despite its minor flaws.
The bottom line: Powerful.
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