Director: Robert Redford
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel
In My Own Words
I am not going to pretend here that I am an expert on American history because I am far from it. Growing up in Australia, American history is barely uttered in our high school education. I hate to say it, but the first American history lesson I got was by watching The Simpsons. Pop culture is great, isn’t it? Can’t say we don’t learn anything from it! The majority of my American history education comes from my trips to Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Boston, three great cities all with fascinating fragments of America’s history.
One of my friends lives in Washington, DC and certainly knows her US history, so she was the perfect person to have with me to show me the sights and the history behind each place. My favourite sight to see in Washington, DC is the Lincoln Memorial. This memorial is the perfect tribute to the man himself. The statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln is seated in the middle of the memorial as if he is looking back down the Mall towards the Capitol. However, there are some places you can stand in the memorial where it feels as though Lincoln has turned his head and is looking straight at you. The thing I love the most about this memorial is that Abe is larger than life and completely intimidating, just as I expect he was in real life.
One particular scene in The Conspirator which I found particularly haunting was the scene where they are taking Lincoln from the theater to the house across the street after he has been shot by John Wilkes Booth. This film was particularly well made, as it shows the chaos that followed after the assassination. Everybody was confused and distraught, yet wanted to catch a glimpse of their beloved president as he was carried out. The musical score supporting this scene completely enhanced the craziness of this scene as well. The most haunting part about it for me was the fact that I have been outside the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot and inside the room in The Peterson House where he was pronounced dead. I had never actually pictured all the chaos which was part of that night when I was there, I just pictured a few men running across the road with the president in their arms. The chaos seems far more appropriate for the situation than a quiet night I had always pictured.
These are my own words and here is my review.
It has been awhile since we have seen a good American period film. Admittedly there are a few American historical films in the pipeline at the present time, but it can be said with confidence that The Conspirator will be one of the better ones you will see. Robert Redford has done a great job of bringing this part of American history alive, although there are several parts of the film he could have expanded on which would have taken The Conspirator from a very good film to an excellent film.
It is the 15th of April 1865, the night which President Abraham Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth. However, everyone knows that one man shot the president, but he wasn’t the only one who orchestrated it. In the days following the assassination, the authorities go after the conspirators and arrest those suspected, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who owns the boarding house which Booth and the other conspirators stayed at and conducted their meetings from. Young lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is given the job to represent her in her trial, whether he believes she is guilty or not. He is soon faced with the dilemma that Surratt seems to be accepting guilt in order to save her son who has disappeared and is also suspected, and that also of his reputation in Washington being tarnished.
The Conspirator above all is a great history lesson. The time period is represented beautifully in the way which 19th century Washington, DC is recreated. The scenery is very impressive and you can really feel what it would be like to be in the city in the time following the Civil War. The way each scene is constructed is commendable as each scene means something and contributes towards the film as a whole. Each scene is informative, entertaining and gives you a piece of new information that you didn’t know in the last scene.
However, it does feel like Redford could have pushed harder with several issues that are bought up in the film, but are not represented the way they should be. For example, when Aiken starts to notice how his social life is affected and how people are treating him in general because of the trial, there isn’t really a sense of it causing him any sense of inner turmoil or any sense of discomfort to the audience. Sure he gets denied going into a party and nudged in the street, but Redford should have pushed this point further in order to grasp what a big deal representing a southerner who is being tried for the murder of the beloved president. It is something which was such a big issue in those times especially because the war was not long over and tensions were still high between the south and the north and the idea of someone from the north representing someone from the south was considered shocking.
Redford may have also done well to push further with the relationships in the film. The relationship between Aiken and Surratt is almost a love/ hate relationship and is quite intriguing. Yet, the relationship between Aiken and his love interest, Sarah (Alexis Bledel) is just dull and would almost do better to not be there, much like Bledel’s performance in the role.
The script was quite well written, yet still seemed a bit weak at times. However, there really are some heart breaking moments in the film. The scene where Lincoln is shot and carried across the road is done brilliantly and a wonderful way to start the film.
Robin Wright is the stand out performance in this film. It is not hard to feel sorry for her character and even be drawn emotionally to her. Wright is just so believable in this role. She truly becomes Surratt in every way. James McAvoy also does very well, but we all know he does well in period films. His performance gradually gets better and better through the film. Evan Rachel Wood is also wonderful in this film giving a heartfelt performance as Surratt’s daughter, Anna.
One thing is sure about The Conspirator, it will be a great film for history classes across the United States in years to come. It is very interesting and there are some wonderful points. Mr Redford just needs to push harder.