The Conspirator is the first film released by The American Film Company, a production company that has staked its entire existence on the notion that real drama is more compelling than fictional drama. And with their maiden feature, the company has completely washed away any criticism about their film being historically inaccurate. This academic ambition will likely stay on the borderlands of Mainstream Country, as boasting historical accuracy just makes people look harder into the details, missing the story. More confounding to the creative team, historically accurate elements of the story are still brushed aside in lieu of budgetary restraints and the simple mathematics of forcing 4 months of American life into a 2-hour run time.
The film’s historical accuracy is best utilized by the vilified characterization of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played by the endearing Kevin Kline). Historically speaking, Stanton improvised a near coup d'etat of the country when it became clear Vice-President Andrew Johnson was blindly vindictive, staggeringly drunk, frustrating illiterate, and now President of the United States. Stanton’s political position has been fortunately remodeled so there is no direct modern day equivalent, nor could they design his physical looks (crazy, old-timey beard) into a caricature of any current leader. So I guess “The Conspirator” got away with a historically accurate antagonist, but they still failed to bring him to life.
Robert Redford has previously directed “Lions for Lambs”—a film whose subtly rivaled a bowling ball to the gut—and admittedly gained some nuance for “The Conspirator.” The American Film Company provided the language, research, set dressing and costume design to make the movie accurate and Redford provided enough philosophy to make the film more than a well-produced reenactment. But then Redford keeps going. Hypotheticals, generalizations, aphorisms and nods to the future drench in the script in intellectual ketchup, because, hey, why do fast food joints use such little packets if we’re going to take seven of them anyway? Fredrick Aiken (played by James “Trying oh-so Hard” McAvoy) is our idealistic young lawyer who doesn’t see the person Mary Surrat as being on trial but never sees the Constitution under the threat of a guillotine. From opening to closing credits, the films treats ideology primarily and emotions to fill in the gaps between legal jargon and scenes wherein Justin Long’s character apparently found a fake mustache, got one laugh and just never let the joke go.
There is no personality to the film, but rather a transparent desire for high school students to use the movie as a doorway into a four-page essay on Constitutional debates in American history. For a smooth two hours, the camera work is adequate, the editing inoffensive, the script acceptable and the actors remain in default. But for what the movie wants (a series of discussions) there is enough uninspired material to politicize and polarize an audience.
"Objection! The Constitution clearly states a bunch of boring stuff."
(Note: wrong movie pictured)
The prisoners are denied humane treatment, and even 1860s-level sanitation, to wallow their way into an unmentioned, though intended, look of inhumanity. The Northerners wanted the captured rebel conspirators to look frayed, dirty and deranged so that justice can be carried out as decisively as Atticus Finch sniping a mad dog. Seeing the enemy as “normal” means discussion is possible, or even expected. Having a discussion with the enemy means humanizing them. Humanizing them means questioning our own beliefs, lives and ideologies. Such questions are unacceptable to those with unquestioned power and so the powerful orchestrate, publish and push around photos of our enemies at their most unrecognizable, accentuating their "otherness."
From there though, the 9-11 allusions lose traction because the film/argument is about human nature, in which terrorism simply becomes an example--not the cause. Sure, religion is brought up, but the Catholic-bashing is so incredibly dated that only in the quietest pockets of radical Protestantism do people still attack the Pope for controlling the wealth of Europe. Simply, Mary Surrat is an American citizen and was captured immediately after the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Just barely does she demographically fit into the Union’s preconceived Southern Rebel stereotype. This all comes back to the point that the film isn’t a one-to-one conversation about modern politics any more than it is about 1942, 1993 or 2017 politics.
It’s about public perception and the dilemma of trying to convict people we “know” are guilty. In the film, Secretary Stanton picks up the microphone of the mythical Silent Majority and says scholarly idealists can shut up and wait in the freaking car while real Americans are fighting for the stability of the country. Surely the American people will go ballistic if Surrat, or any other “guilty” person, is found innocent by way of a loophole or soft-eyed lawyer. Except that losing the country to social instability is unfounded. There is neither precedent nor promise of a nation-wide social collapse given any single court ruling. Whereas if we sacrifice our ideals, we are no longer the country built on ideals but yet another nation in the long line of powerful nations world history that forces citizens to flee for their lives.
People will say the country is going in the wrong direction as they are required to say during every election season/year/decade, but society is not collapsing. There will be a backlash to current political leaders. To President Obama’s critics and supporters, I beg all to remember he will not be president forever. In all serious likelihood, another Republican will become President in the future, as will another Democrat, and, sure, maybe even a third party member. Regardless, there will still be an America and we will still make movies are that moderately entertaining, even if the entertainment comes from conversational exercises rather than communal emotions.