Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Conspirator (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Conspirator

   Robert Redford's new film "The Conspirator", focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt and her supposed connection in the conspiracy to assassinate president Lincoln and three members of his cabinet. As the film's start there is great jubilation as the Civil War is concluded with a Union victory. Fireworks are launched. Champagne is poured. Petticoats are courted. We see Kevin Kline in lambchops and Justin Long (famous for the Apple commercials) as a Civil War veteran.    
   Then the action shifts to some grizzled boozing and knitted brows. Guns are cocked under brown hats. Something sepia is afoot. We move like a raven to the balcony of Ford's theatre. Lincoln is nodding to some comic  foolery below.  Abruptly the scene jumps again. We see co-conspirator  Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus) attacking a frail William Seward in his bed with the savagery of Jack the Ripper or Hannibal Lecter. Horrors. Then John Wilkes Booth slashes away at the guard at the doomed theatre. He jumps to the stage, breaks his leg and fires his shot. Lincoln doubles over. Redford doesn't spare any slashings or punches and his cinematography, although sweeping and handsome, is a bit like a "Bourne Identity" update of a History Channel Tv Expose. Might the visual impact be heightened with a Brian De Palma split screen? At times, the cuts appear abrupt and a bit confusing. The flashbacks, also, are a little too much like "Law & Order" for me. 
   Paranoia ensues with a kind of anti-terror hysteria, the first of its kind.
   The former US attorney general Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is assigned to counsel Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who is accused of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth via covert meetings in her boarding house. The case is then passed on to Johnson's apprentice, the idealistic Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy  ). 
   McAvoy and Wright are both vivid in their roles, but it is Wright who outshines her co-star with her honest passion in regard to her innocence. The pale rigidity in her face is something we can actually feel. The worry in her face has weight and bearing. Her character of Mary is as much a figure of visual impact as it is a psychological one. Dressed in black with a bonnet on her head, she looks like a resolute grackle---austere and calmly rigid. Her persona is iconic---a foreshadowing of the masterpiece Whistler's Mother.          Mary alone is the only anchor that holds the film together. The rest is all dim court-room rabble.
Yet the Conspirator is informative and fair enough for a history film. The acting is facile and authentic. The only drawback for me is the pace and the cinematography. With every flashback that occurs, there is the same high-contrast of darkness and light and the sequencing feels a bit too much like a tv biopic: an interrogation followed by a court scene followed by still more court scenes and interrogations. And the truth is gradually revealed at the end. Everything seems a bit too easily processed with little shades of gray. We know Mary Surratt is a scapegoat relatively early. So where is the surprise? A better movie might of been the vanity of Booth, his feeling of jilted fame, or his ravings akin to the anti-government Tea parties of today. You could even have a Glenn Beck circa 1865.  What a movie!

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