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The Conspirator 

Redford's Conspirator replaces fever-dream paranoia with ponderous tub thumping.

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For years, I’ve been laboring under the misapprehension that there was no way to make the conventional courtroom drama any more tedious and inert. Thanks to Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, I’ve discovered a way: Make it an excruciatingly earnest two-hour-long allegory.

In theory, at least it should be interesting as a little-known historical footnote. Did you know that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 was part of a conspiracy to assassinate several government officials on the same night? Were you aware that among those charged was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the Southern-born keeper of the Washington, D.C., boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others may have hatched the plot? And that a decorated Union veteran named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) was assigned to defend her—not in a regular court of law, but before a military tribunal?

And furthermore, did you know that the entire episode is clearly a case study for post-9/11 hysteria? Screenwriter James Solomon hammers home how deeply wrong it is that national mourning and fear should drive a nation to unconstitutional acts, and that being at war should not excuse injustice, and what are we fighting for if not for our constitutional freedoms, etc. “The world has changed,” War Secretary Stanton (Kevin Kline) solemnly intones as justification for seeing to Surratt’s conviction by any means necessary—although apparently, ham-fisted moralizing remains a constant.

The Conspirator’s borderline laughable, nonstop nudging at War on Terror parallels might have been slightly more tolerable had anything else in the film been vaguely interesting. But Aiken’s story arc—from his own righteous anger to fierce advocate for his client’s innocence, periodically interrupted by pleas from his doe-eyed paramour (Alexis Bledel) and army buddies to give up the case—goes nowhere you wouldn’t predict from the outset, and every unfairness done to Surratt is too obvious even to inspire outrage. It’s a Bizarro-world twist on JFK, only with fever-dream paranoia turned into ponderous tub thumping. 



James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline
Rated PG-13

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