Movie Review: The Conspirator

Denisa and I watched The Conspirator the other day. It’s the true story of the defense of the mother of one of the conspirators who assassinated Lincoln. That’s a bit convoluted, isn’t it? Let me explain. Yes, John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln–but he didn’t do it alone. He had help from others, and they’d planned to not just kill Lincoln, but several other heads of state. They hatched their plot at the boarding house of one Mary Surratt, mother of one of the conspirators. After the plan went into action, they were all rounded up and tried for their parts in the scandal–and the mother was taken in, too.

This movie follows her trial, and it tries to be as historically accurate as you can expect a Hollywood depiction of the events to be. I quite enjoyed it.

First of all, you’ve got a really good team assembled. The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) directs. The Princess Bride (Robin Wright) plays Mary (and when did Robin get old? That’s not allowed to happen!), Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) plays the reluctant defense lawyer, and Otto (Kevin Kline) is the head of the war department, set on hanging everybody he can. (Have you ever thought how cool it would be if actors played one of their previous roles in a different film? I wrote a book that had that as one of its founding ideas–except for books, rather than movies. But maybe it’s just me who thinks that would be neat.)

Really, where the movie shines is also where it gets bogged down at times: it’s “greater meaning.” Redford has a tendency to politicize with too heavy a hand in this film. McAvoy is a young up and coming lawyer with big dreams. He thinks Mary is as guilty as sin, but he’s roped into defending her against his will. Naturally, once he gets to know the specifics of her case, he starts to see how she might be innocent, and he ends up defending her too vigorously against an administration eager to be able to pin the assassination on a few individuals, kill them, and then let the country “move on.” This movie has a Theme, and that’s both a strength and a weakness. It gives it something to shoot for and aspire to, but we’re hit over the head with it occasionally.

Redford put a lot of care into the historical aspect of the movie, and if you’re a history buff, this would be right up your alley. The costumes and setting are all top notch.

In the end, one of the reasons I’m giving the movie a solid three stars is because it helped me see a slice of history in a different light. I think a lot of the time we read history books and imagine that an entire time period or event can easily be summed up on a few pages. The Great Depression was depressing. Everybody was jumping out of windows or starving. The Cold War was a time when everyone was worried we’d get nuked any minute. Life isn’t like that. I imagine in sixty years, history will have relegated the Great Recession (or whatever they call this time we’re living in right now) to a few pages, as well. But from what I’ve seen so far, life is life. It continues in one decade more or less how it did in another. There are shades of good and evil. The Civil War era was no different.

Yes, the movie can be heavy handed, but in the end, it doesn’t go too far. Reading up on the trial afterward, it appears to have presented things more or less how they happened, and I can respect a movie for that. If you’re a history or legal buff, this is a movie you’ll enjoy, I think. If you want explosions and a rollicking plot line, move on to the next.

Anyone else seen this? Thoughts?

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