Review by Dave Herbelin
When two Movie Guys told me they had seen a sneak preview of a new movie directed by Robert Redford entitled “The Conspirator” I was hooked by the title. When they told me it was a period film about the trail of Mary Surratt, accused conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, I was sold. I went to see the movie opening night, 151 years to the day after Lincoln died. The only thing that would have made the movie bearable, would have been a bottle of 151. It was like watching an undergrad film of a boring play starring freshmen actors.
Being a history buff, and having done extensive research on the Lincoln assassination, there are I many reasons many would think I would hate the movie. “Historically inaccurate! Not true!” These are some of the words that people who know me may expect me to shout. However, I can’t. It was historically accurate. They portrayed the facts of the entire situation. However, this is where they stopped, and therefore failed.
This Hollywood movie is lacking one of the key words to what it is – Hollywood! It’s not enough to simply film the facts. When we go to theatre we expect to see at least a slightly heightened telling of a story. We want to see pure emotion on film. We understand that edits may happen to the true life events to help streamline and tell a better story. We understand that scenes may be added that may or may not have happened, if they help to raise the stakes of the climax. And we understand that the truths are bent a little to make a great film. If we wanted to see just the plain facts of the story we would have saved our money, stayed home, and watched the History Channel version. It’s why every great historically based film is accompanied by a documentary on the History Channel showing the plain facts. It’s to separate the Hollywood story telling from the plain facts. I don’t know what the History Channel will do with “The Conspirator” other than just have a guy say, “Yep. What the film said. Back to you Phil with theWW2 marathon.” I enjoy a good true story film. I prefer them. They have an extra edge to them that tell you, “yes this is an amazing story, and someone actually lived it.” The story behind “The Conspirator” is an amazing story, but it is not amazingly told in this film.
The first thing I noticed about this film was the cinematography, which says something, because I never notice that junk. But the filming, the lighting, the sound, everything smelled like inexperienced undergrads. In one of the many courtroom scenes, the defense attorney, Aiken, is cross-examining a witness. In one shot he is asking a question with clear sunlight coming through the windows. Two shots later he is listening to the answer in smoke filled, late evening, darkness.
Another scene has Mary Surratt and Aiken talking together in small cell, but their voices have the echo clarity of a recording booth. Framing of shots was incorrect to capture emotions. Most shots were of half body or more with few close ups, keeping the audience distant from the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. I almost wonder if the camera stayed back because the actors protested against the absence of make up. On top of all this, the film looked as if it was filmed on hand-held handicams with their operators trying hard, but not hard enough, to keep booms and light trees out of the shots.
The acting…. I think the actors were victims of the director. Since the majority of the actors, who have all given great performances in other films, did not succeed in this one, it can be nothing else. For some reason Redford believes that in 1865 America there were only two accents: Southern and Justin Long-eese. All characters who were from the north sounded like they just stepped off the set of “Dodgeball”, “Die Hard 4”, and “Gilmore Girls”. They walked through their roles just as easily without any hint of dialect or use of Civil War colloquials. There was also actor 101 mugging going on throughout the movie. Several scenes had day players indicating their thougths and reactions clearly on their faces with classic Mike Brady, “that silly Alice” expressions. Subtlety was not a strong point in this film. But neither was raw emotion. It was monotone. The climax was missed. You know it’s coming. You’re rooting for the actors to hit it. You’re waving your Kleenex in the air showing them you want to cry and feel for them. But then you toss your unsoiled hanky on the ground in disgust that the movie just seemed to get lazy and old. Watching these actors with these missed moments, I’m reminded of M. Night’s folly, “The Village”, (yes he had many follies, but this one was his first biggest…there have been bigger since) in which he made Academy Award winner Adrien Brody look like a fool and helps him dig an early grave for his career that he has never emerged from since.
Bottom line. If I’m paying $12-15 to see a movie, I expect to see Hollywood! Not a student film. I want Broadway! Not a black box. Perhaps Hollywood needs to take a lesson from Broadway and change the admission prices to reflect the production level: blockbuster equals $15, low budget, $6. This way we pay for what we get and we get what we pay for. Redford, you were once Hollywood. You were Hollywood in the golden age. Now in your golden age, please bring back Hollywood.
*** for the history everyone should know.
* for the filmmaking
Directed by: Robert Redford
Release Date: April 15, 2011
Run Time: 123 Minutes
Distributor: The American Film Company