June 19, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 21 April 2011 10:20
Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help parents choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new film from director Robert Redford, The Conspirator.A nation in shock looks for immediate answers to a tragedy impossible to explain. Well-intentioned government officials — seeking to heal the national hurt — quickly develop easy-to-understand answers for public consumption. And caught in the middle are those accused of crimes, perhaps innocent, perhaps guilty, and certainly in the wrong places at the wrong times.
Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is not a return to the aftermath of September 11th or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Instead, this thoughtful filmmaker recreates a moment in history that may only be remembered by enthusiastic history buffs. He returns to the anxious hours immediately following the murder of Abraham Lincoln to offer a possible explanation of why a nation would rush to judgment to soothe pain people cannot comprehend.
The Conspirator — Redford’s detailed examination of the American tension of April 1865 — feels, at moments, like a return to history class with its richness of fact, insight and speculation. But the Oscar-winning filmmaker seems so determined to respect the academically rich content that he overlooks opportunities to inject the film with excitement. Redford so carefully delivers the facts that, at times, he overlooks the thrills. And this is a thrilling story in American history.
Redford opens the film with an effectively edited recreation of the night Lincoln is shot, by actor John Wilkes Booth, while attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. With the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, and the devastating Civil War coming to end, Washington is filled with excitement. But lingering beneath this glittery surface is the intent of some Southerners to, as history tells us, exercise revenge for the suffering.
That revenge takes the form of planned attacks on three high ranking officials, including the stabbing of the Secretary of State, a thwarted attempt on the life of the Vice President and, simultaneously, the shooting of Lincoln. At the center of what is immediately deemed a conspiracy is a quiet widow, Mary Surratt, who happens to run a boarding house where plans for the attacks may have been hatched. The U.S. government, eager to close the case and move forward, quickly puts her on trial for what she may have known. Was she involved or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
The Conspirator tries to personalize this history lesson by crafting Mary and her attorney, Frederick Aiken, into fully-realized characters. Mary’s relationships with her daughter — a bystander to what may have occurred — and her son — a full-fledged participant — are insightful. But the efforts to add dimension to the attorney’s life — especially his ill-fated romance with a woman who can’t understand his decision to defend Surratt — are poorly performed by Alexis Bledel who plays her scenes as if still performing on The Gilmore Girls on television.
The other performers fare better. James McAvoy, best remembered for Atonement, creates a moving and believable portrayal of Aiken. Robin Wright, who doesn’t make enough movies, offers a delightfully fresh approach to Mary, giving the woman a range of emotional reactions. Tom Wilkinson makes the most of his scenes as a U.S. Senator interested in justice while Kevin Kline is strong as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who is willing to do anything to heal the country.
Ultimately, Redford delivers a worthwhile history lesson. With a bit more cinema nerve, he could have also created an exciting film. But few films on the screen today are as carefully created as this return to a dark moment in our national past.
* Content: High. Bringing a little known chapter in history to life fuels the film with rich detail and insight.
* Entertainment: Medium. At times, director Robert Redford lets the focus on history get in the way of generating movie excitement.
* Message: Medium. Redford tries, with modest success, to tie the moral of the film to more recent historical events.
* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to inspire children to learn more about history is well worth a visit to the movies.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. After you share this film, talk about the impact of this chapter in history to our country.
(The Conspirator is rated PG-13 for some violent content. The film runs 123 minutes.)
4 Popcorn Buckets
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