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History Drags On: The Conspirator is high on facts, but low on energy 

The Conspirator is a production by American Film History, a company committed to accurately portraying history in movies.

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The Conspirator is a production by American Film History, a company committed to accurately portraying history in movies. Sure enough, Robert Redford's most recent flick since Lions for Lambs seems to have all the facts straight, but delivers such a deadpan and boring tale that by the end it seems like it probably belongs on the History Channel.

From the get-go we see that Redford is detail-oriented and infatuated with recreating the time period, but to a fault, and in many cases the performances are off the mark. With such an interesting piece of overlooked history - the trial of the eight people charged with conspiring to assist in the assassination of President Lincoln - this should have been a compelling flick loaded with angst and pathos, but as it stands, it lacks tension. We feel the urgency, even in thinking about the atrocities and depth of despair brought on by the Civil War, but Conspirator seems superficial and glossed over. The facts that unfold are monumental and comparable today to the injustices at Guantanamo Bay, yet it feels like one long, slow march toward the inevitable.

The story is that seven men and one lone female, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), were charged as conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln. Surratt owned a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and the others met and hatched the plot of the simultaneous attacks, and it is up to her reluctant lawyer (James McAvoy), a Northern war hero, to uncover the truth and convince a military tribunal to spare her life.

This movie moves at a snail's pace and rarely brings in the audience. We get a jury of officers with their minds made up and even though the courtroom scenes try to amp up the proceedings, the mix-and-match courtroom and prison gab fests feel mandatory and some are altogether unnecessary. The courtroom scenes are few and far between, containing the enthusiasm of a high-school play. And with the exception of Stephen Root (who's quickly becoming my favorite character actor) as the alcoholic stable owner, the acting of the surrounding cast is just fair. McAvoy is all over the map, looking lost and distracted. He seems to never focus except to get pissed off a couple of times. Robin Wright is really the only reason to watch this movie as she shines amidst the community theater posing.

And what's the deal with Danny Huston? I just checked, and he's been in more movies I've reviewed than any other actor. Just because he has a famous dad doesn't mean he gets to be in every movie he wants. Let me let you in on a little secret... he's not that good! He plays the prosecuting attorney/marshal and bloats himself up using that inherited John Huston gravel voice to some degree, but he's still Danny Huston and should take a break. Also, the guy who played Lincoln was robbed - all we see is his cheek mole and beard.

Redford is hell bent on wowing us with the lighting techniques and his attention to recreating a Civil War-era theme park mars the storytelling. The camera angles are too disjointed and the editing seems to have been done by mail order.

Conspirator's most intriguing plot point is McAvoy's character's moral dilemma. His legal career has taken a traumatic turn - after serving in the North he is forced into defending a Southerner. He then observes the travesty of manipulators in the legal system bending the rules and messing with the law in the name of "security." Taking a stand for the law, human rights and an innocent woman's life, the attorney is then ostracized. The comparisons to politically motivated justice and the military industrial complex are clear, but in the end, all these lofty ideals get engulfed in period pieces, lack of tension and bad dialogue. History be dammed, this movie is boring!

Just like Mary Surratt's predetermined fate, Redford seems to have designs on having us leave the theater with comparisons to present-day legal atrocities, but I left questioning the time spent looking at the seat in front of me and wondering about its history and where it was made.

The Conspirator


Starring Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson,
Kevin Kline

Directed by Robert Redford

Rated PG-13


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