As we get closer and closer to the election, movies like “The Conspirator” should become more relevant, as any and everything around politics will be in full focus. With that said, I bet this is first time many of you have heard of it. That’s too bad, because Robert Redford had a plan in place for this film, which originally was released the day after the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, an important day in American history. So, talk about taking a punch to the gut, but I think that’s what Redford wanted, bringing attention to a story and time period that so many of us never bother to think about or respect.
As the story goes, way back in 1865 on the eve of April 15th, our 16thpresident Abraham Lincoln took his wife Mary to Ford’s Theatre to watch the play, Our American Cousin. It was supposed to be a quite night, considering just five days prior, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant pretty much ending the American Civil War. But, that quite night turned ugly when John Wilkes Booth snuck into the theater and shot Lincoln from behind, putting to end to the play and more importantly Lincoln, who Booth had not supported. Several days later, seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) are charged with conspiring to kill the president. Turns out Surratt owned a boarding house in which Booth frequented, which naturally put her in the forefront for all that went down that grave night in April, as she was blamed for allowing someone like Booth to plan his attacks under her roof. And at the time, there simply was not enough evidence to support she didn’t have anything do with it. So, naturally when former war-hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) was given the job to defend Surratt, he didn’t want it. But, as time went on, Aiken began to uncover one odd coincidence after another leaving him little choice, but to believe Surratt’s claim resulting in an unheralded conclusion that defines the time this tragedy took place in.
The longer you watch “The Conspirator” the more you realize just how many actors would like to work for Redford. No other reason can explain why they would take a pay cut to be in this type of melancholy story. I’m glad, though, because had there been no Robin Wright or James McAvoy, this film would have never been what it was. Wright almost deserves to be nominated for this role and had it come out later this year, she might have been, due to how amazing she was. Here’s an actress that virtually has dropped off the face of the earth and yet, she can just pick it right back it up and wow you. That’s talent and exactly why Redford wanted her in this role as Mary Surratt. And really, it was her and James McAvoy’s film, who also reminded us he is someone to keep an eye on. McAvoy may not be the most recognizable name, but he has a way of making you believe everything he is doing on the big screen and it was no different here. With that said, the one piece to this cast that will certainly go unnoticed is Evan Rachel Wood, who played Mary Surratt’s daughter Mary. In fewer scenes, Wood was able to demand your attention each and every time she spoke or moved. That’s impressive and why I have always been a big fan of hers, both in film and on TV.
The more I think about it, the more I start to realize how much of an anomaly Robert Redford is in Hollywood. They just don’t make guys like him anymore and that’s a shame for this man truly cares about his craft. Anyone who would put that much effort, time and money into supporting and enhancing independent films would have to be, right? And I can’t help but think this film is almost his way of showing you can make something out of nothing. Made for just $20 million, “The Conspirator” qualifies as a low budget film and the more you watch it, the more you appreciate what Redford was trying to accomplish. Sure, it’s slow and sometimes a little drawn out, but Redford knows that, choosing to focus in on the politics and drama that surrounded this conspiracy so many of us never read into. I like that and frankly wish more director’s had the courage to essentially “go for it” without any preconceived notions that it must be this or that. I respect that and wish more directors took that approach, as sometimes it can lead to great things. It did here and I was in awe with all the old politics and truths being exposed around each corner, reminding me of some of our most recent leaders. More importantly, I liked how it all looked, with Redford utilizing as much natural light as he could to stay with the times of this mid to late 1800’s courtroom drama. This allowed you to focus entirely on the story and politics, which is the message Redford wanted to convey. Nothing else mattered in my mind, which is why I say Redford should be commended for simply doing it his own way.
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