The Conspirator tells an interesting story in a boring way, which is too bad. The casting and acting is excellent and if nothing else, the movie is almost worth watching many good actors. But not much is done with it, at least not more than is absolutely necessary. It’s a solid movie with an obvious message, which I will get to in a second. The movie takes too long to get going, giving us the whole Lincoln assassination without giving us a clue what the movie will be about for fifteen minutes. Only then the real story comes through and inbetween the movie also spends time with too many things that seem irrelevant.
Well, the obvious intent of the movie is showing how paranoia and fear can lead to injustice and to abandoning the principle you’re supposedly protecting. I like that message and I found it interesting to have another thread you can connect to 9/11 and McCarthyism. It’s relevant, this idea of “You are either with us or against us.” But is the movie too “preachy” about its issues, as many people claim? This is a criticism that I never fully accepted for something like The Newsroom, which many people can’t stand because of it. But I somehow got a bit of it with The Conspirator, maybe because it is not explicitly about one thing but uses its story to draw parallels. And those parallels are sometimes too obvious. The movie doesn’t ask for our opinion but simply says: “This is how it was.” Which in itself isn’t a problem but something about it felt too much. Maybe it was the overuse of lighting throughout the movie, which felt like natural light, but also like an exaggaration of symbolism, of bringing light into the darkness, of uncovering the injustice.
In at least two scenes, the characters say sentences that can easily applied to any situation where civil rights are abandoned in favor of fear and prejudice. In a conversation between Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who wants to retain civil rights at all costs, and Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who wants to keep his country safe, there is this dialogue:
Johnson: This is a frightened country, Ed, you don’t need to scare us anymore.
Stanton: And who is to say that none of these things could happen? The unspeakable already has, our president assassinated, 600,000 dead. The world has changed, Reverdy.
Johnson: Abandoning the constitution is not the answer.
You see how you could easily swap some terms and apply this conversation to, as many claim, 9/11? Or this conversation between again Stanton and the protagonist of the movie, Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy), who defends Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who is accused of participating in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.
Stanton: Tell me, when you first learned that our Secretary of State has been butchered to within an inch of his life and that they put a bullet in the back of our president’s head, when this city was in chaos, did you not wish to see order restored? And justice served? Or were you just concerned with the rights of the assassins?
Aiken: It’s not justice you’re after, it’s revenge.
Stanton: I’ll never go to such lengths out of vengeance but to ensure the survival of this nation, I would do anything.
Aiken uses a similar sentiment in his closing statement, which is convincing and relatable, but the movie makes the very unwise choice of not letting us hear the prosecution’s closing statement. I think drawing those parallels is good and right, but going to such lengths to get them across feels manipulative and unnecessary. It is easy for the audience to draw its conclusions from this kind of dialogue. They don’t need to be protected from having other thoughts.
Oh, one more thing. I think the movie didn't really know what to do with its women. They often functioned as commentators for the men, not much more. And while Robin Wright does a good job of portraying Mary Surratt, I found even her role slightly underwhelming.