Robert Redford’s new film, The Conspirator, feels like an old movie.  I don’t mean period piece; surely it is that.  No, I mean the sort of episodic historical drama of the studio era that meanders along with a few emotional high points but not much structure or emotional authenticity.

Not the best of those films – the ones that can inspire and engage a viewer despite the limitations of the form – but the middle of the road set, the movies with stars and high production values and, sometimes, noble ideas but without the magic that makes the film something more than the sum of its parts.

In essence, this is the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a boarding house when John Wilkes Booth and others conspired to kill Lincoln and others in his administration and the lawyer (played by James McAvoy) who defends her at first unwillingly then zealously and at personal cost.  Though, the film is really much more about the principles than the personal.

I don’t know enough to speak to the historical accuracy of The Conspirator, but the issues of governance in the wake of national catastrophe (in this film after the assassination of President Lincoln) are relevant in current questions arising over whether or not military courts are the proper venue for certain types of trials.

All of that is well and good, but the film itself fails to deliver much drama until the end.  This is a problem beyond principles and politics.  For the most part, it seems like a play about important events instead of a story that draws the viewer into the lives of the characters and the situations they encounter.  It is talky instead of cinematic.  Sometimes talky can work on the screen but that requires a certain transformation of the actors and incredibly good “talk, “ while these actors seem like performers in roles instead of people encountering dramatic and traumatic situations.

Also, the context is murky.  A.O. Scott wrote a thoughtful review in the New York Times that addresses this point well:

There is something curious about a film that turns on events related to the Civil War but doesn’t mention slavery.  There is something disappointing about a high-minded work (and this is) that fails to deliver emotionally.

Should you see it?  Sure.  It’s a lot better than most of the bland titles at the multiplex (though I do plan to see Jane Eyre and Win-Win this weekend myself and don’t expect either one to be bland!).  I was just hoping for a little bit more with The Conspirator.

As an additional note:  I couldn’t help but think that the cinematography (Newton Thomas Sigel was DP here) was inspired a bit by a film I love The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but that Director of Photography Roger Deakins is a master (if you look at his credits,, you’ll see what I mean).  Although I think the look of one film may have inspired the other, the cinematography in The Conspirator did not enhance my experience of the film as it did so greatly in The Assassination of Jesse James…


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