Entry 21: Fighting the War on Terror in 1865

The ConspiratorDirected by Robert Redford. Written by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein.

Release Date: April 15, 2011.

I should start this post with an admission: I avoid the Lincoln assassination like the plague. It’s not that I don’t understand its historical importance—obviously it’s a huge deal. What I mean is, I avoid the details and literature about the act itself. There seems to be a subculture obsessed with the minute details of presidential assassinations with little regard for genuine historical context, and that turns me off. Nevertheless, I’m aware there’s legitimate work being done on the subject. For instance, it’s clear I don’t know enough about the trial of the assassins, especially the controversy surrounding Mary Surratt. Thus, I approached The Conspirator with a pretty open mind and I did manage to learn a little about Surratt. Unfortunately, I also found myself doubting the script’s veracity because it’s clearly far more interested in constructing a parable for post-9/11 America than a historical drama about the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s death.

It doesn’t help that The Conspirator doesn’t really succeed as entertainment either. Robert Redford is a pretty competent director, but everything about this movie feels wooden and artificial. He treats the past with too much reverence, leading to a somber, forced tone with sets that look like rooms on historic home tours rather than lived-in spaces. Both are common problems in historical films, but I expected better from such a high-profile effort. Natural-sounding 19th Century dialogue is hard to write and perform, and this film only rarely pulls off either feat. Historical sets are equally difficult, and The Conspirator‘s inability to convincingly re-create homes, offices, and military forts really bolstered my appreciation for the excellent set design in Lincoln, which never showed its seams. The cast also under-performs. This is especially true of the lead, James McAvoy, who is usually reliable but puts in a stagey performance. Robin Wright is also disappointing—making Surratt so stoic and unflappable that she doesn’t come across as a real person.

But you could throw a lot of these same criticisms at Gettysburg and, although I’ve been critical of the film, I still hold it in fairly high regard. The real problem with The Conspirator is its ham-handed attempt to make a point about the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay through a re-staging of Surratt’s trial. The script paints Surratt’s lawyer, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), as a cliched reluctant civil rights crusader fighting for justice against the imperialist mustache-twirling duo of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline) and Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Danny Huston). In history, the latter two surely had their faults, but they’re so obviously one-dimensional stand-ins for the George W. Bush administration—disregarding the rule of law to convict a suspected enemy of the state—that it’s hard to take the story seriously. The thesis is embedded in the title: you might think it’s referencing the assassins but Stanton and Holt are the real conspirators!

On the other hand, the movie isn’t all bad. Someone interested in the Surratt trial will have plenty to chew on and I’m sure there were lots of folks who enjoyed seeing this element of the assassination story rendered with such care. The trial scenes, in particular, seem accurate and are sometimes entertaining, but I never felt emotionally invested. I wasn’t even intellectually engaged, since the script insistently told me precisely how to feel at precisely every moment. Even when Redford tries to make his direction more interesting, like frequently bathing certain characters in sunlight, he does it to obvious effect: characters in light = good, characters outside of light = bad.

Ah, but I’m complaining again. I’m seriously trying to be fair here because I don’t think The Conspirator is terrible, but few things frustrate me so much as a one-note sermon masquerading as entertainment—especially when it uses a questionable historical metaphor. At it’s heart, Lincoln essentially had the same goal in using the fight over the 13th Amendment to show how a moral issue can foster political compromise, but that film conveyed its argument with much more grace and rarely put its message ahead of history. On the other hand, The Conspirator‘s politics never seem far from the frame. I liked it enough to make it through the whole thing (fellow Civil War historian and blogger Keith Harris was not so patient) but I can’t recommend it. There’s probably a good movie to be made about the Lincoln assassination and/or the succeeding trial. The Conspirator is not that film.

Additional Dispatches:

  • The moment that probably turned me against the film as a serious historical drama was when Aiken asks Stanton “Why did I fight for the Union if my rights aren’t assured” and Stanton sneers back, “Fine words for rallying the troops, not for running a nation.” This script is not subtle.
  • Check out good ol’ Norman Reedus as one of the assassins! It had never occurred to me that Darryl on The Walking Dead looks like Alexander Payne, but now I can’t unsee it.
  • Does it mention slavery?: Not at all but I’ll give it a pass since it isn’t directly relevant to the events being portrayed. On the other hand, it seems like a wasted opportunity to write a script expressly arguing that war often trumps civil rights without pointing out the irony that this resulted after a war that ended America’s most egregious violation of human rights.

Next Entry: Dark Command

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