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Film as history? Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (2011)

November 27, 2011

Whether films can be trusted to shed light on real-life historical events is open to debate. It is certain that films do provide evidence of thought and the society and culture of the times in which they are made, but as evidence of the past they are less successful and open to endless abuse and invention. Of course, films should not neccessarily have to be accurate: they are art after all. Yet serious filmmakers, like Redford, often wish their art to change minds, throw open old debates or educate people about the past. The Conspirator is made by such a filmmaker and is such a movie. Produced by the American Film Company, apparently dedicated to making accurate historical films, The Conspirator is a satisfying and noteworthy film documenting an emotional moment in US history, namely the assasination of Abraham Lincoln at the close of the Civil War. The film is a legal thriller and narrates the military trial of the mother of one of the conspirators: one Mary Surratt – played with tightly reigned in emotion and severe grace by a terrific and vanity-free Robin Wright, recently liberated from what was no doubt a long and thankless marriage to Sean Penn. 

Her initially reluctant legal counsel is played by the always wonderful James MacAvoy, and Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meany, Danny Huston and Evan Rachel Wood lead an all-round solid and professional supporting cast.

Several reviewers on Rottentomatoes have described the film as ‘stodgy’, ‘talky’, ‘self-important’ and ‘turgid’. Others have remarked negatively on its stiffness. I heartily disagree and think it is a shame that these days members of the public (and reviewers!) obviously struggle to sit through a subtle, demandingly-paced courtroom thriller; or any other ‘slow’ film, let alone one one set in the relatively distant, ‘stiffer’ past. What would they have made of To Kill a Mockingbird if it was released in 2011 one wonders? This film’s very accuracy, and its stately pace, rests on its scrupulous attention to detail, whether dialogue or artefacts like costume and buildings. Importantly, it is serious, not stodgy (unless one is the kind of person finds all period dramas or legal thrillers stodgy). Even if the viewer knows beforehand (I didn’t) what became of Mary Surratt or who she was, one is still drawn into her fate. Crucially, the film also tells a largely untold story connected with the assassination – one that definitely should be better known. While it is grave and restrained, the film also implies a world of emotion and invites empathy and identification with its characters while also telling a historical ‘story’.

Redford is obviously keen to show that decisions made in war result in a loss of liberty and a challenge to the constitution of the USA – a worthy contemporary political message and also one that transcends the American situation. Yet, apart from its historicity and regional focus, the film is also well worth a concentrated viewing on its own merits – as a cracking historical courtroom drama enacted by a fine cast in their element.

  1. pallasathena1 permalink

    Wonderful writing. I had been avoiding this movie as it seemed so depressing, but now feel compelled to see it.

  2. Redford has been at this kind of movie-making as political soapbox since The Candidate. I’m not a huge Redford fan, but this does appear to be an intriguing film and the cast looks particularly strong.

    • I don’t usually mind Redford’s brand of soapbox(ing?) but this is a fine historical film apart from that. I’m not American though so perhaps the film will resonate differently if one is or if one is familiar with the history. Or perhaps Redford’s ideological filmmaking irritates more as well…

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