‘The Conspirator’: Robert Redford’s latest movie is painfully real

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Still from The Conspirator. (www.conspiratorthemovie.com)
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Simon Abrams

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Robert Redford’s career as a director has become defined not by what his films prove that he can accomplish but rather what they promise to deliver. His works range in quality from the excellent Quiz Show to the abysmal The Legend of Bagger Vance. Redford’s new film, The Conspirator, is not a great one.

It is an issue film, meant to get us talking about 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was sentenced to a military trial. It is about the right to a trial by jury.

As a drama, it feels implausible, despite the fact that it is based, with painstaking accuracy, on real events: the controversial military trial of a woman (played by Robin Wright) accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

The film takes place mostly in the courtroom where a reluctant young defense attorney (James McAvoy) is beset on all sides as he tries to defend Wright’s character. She’s being made an example of in lieu of her son, who did in fact conspire with Booth but couldn’t be put on trial at the time.

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As McAvoy’s character fights harder and harder to understand why he is compelled to defend Wright, the case against her becomes increasingly hopeless. But Redford doesn’t successfully make McAvoy’s client look like a human being. Wright’s predicament, not her character, is The Conspirator’s real subject.

The Conspirator is not nearly as messy as Lions for Lambs, a soggy political screed about the necessity of political action. But The Conspirator is also a far less interesting than Lions for Lambs, which for all its flaws is at least conceptually engaging. For instance, none of the characters in Lions for Lambs are relatable or recognizable as human beings, either. They are the sum of their dilemmas, just as Wright’s martyred character in The Conspirator is, but at least Redford embraces that fact.

Lions for Lambs has the courage of its convictions and directly addresses uncomplicated moral dilemmas. That films follows three separate storylines about a veteran journalist (Meryl Streep), a slacker college student (Andrew Garfield) and two young soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) who all struggle to define themselves by actions that support their politics.

Streep has to decide whether or not she should kill a prominent story that she feels would conflict with her feelings as a protester of the War in Iraq, a conflict that she originally supported. Now, she can choose to either run the story and pay her ailing mother’s medical bills, or she can heed her moral imperative and refuse to hype up a new war offensive spearheaded by a pugilistic right-wing senator (Tom Cruise). The stakes for this dilemma are unfortunately only laid out during the film’s third act. (It’s another demonstration of Redford’s pacing issues: His films are all two hours long or longer, the shortest one being The Milagro Beanfield War, which clocks in at a bloated 117 minutes.)

The two films that best highlight the spectrum of Redford’s commitment to human characters are, respectively, Ordinary People and The Horse Whisperer.

Both films follow nuclear families that suffer personal tragedies that force them to question their commitments to each other as parents and children and husbands and wives. In The Horse Whisperer, a young girl (Scarlett Johansson) is crippled in a horse-riding accident, making her mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) realize just how hard she’s tried to make her relationship with her distant husband (Sam Neill) work. In Ordinary People, the near-suicide of a high school-aged WASP (Timothy Hutton, who won an Oscar for his performance) drives both his parents (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) to their wits’ end until the mother, being militantly repressed and violently closed off towards her family, runs away.

Tyler Moore’s mother character, Ordinary People’s most unlikable figure, is very believably human, which turns out to be the most pleasing thing about the film. She shelters herself by refusing to engage with her husband or son whenever they want to talk about their feelings. Her final scene, in which she appears to be gasping from the first raw emotions she’s allowed herself to feel in a long while, isn’t any more nuanced than the soap-opera theatrics in Lions for Lambs. But that kind of dramatic shorthand is at least understandable in Ordinary People, a melodrama whose greatest strength is its belief in the power of a small gesture.

Apparently, Redford has since moved onto bigger things.