Notes from Underground
By ANDY NOWICKI
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An absurdly grandiose and Manichean bifurcation between inherently noble and upright heroes and fiercely hateful and heartless villains, as well as an unseemly straining to be "topical," are signs that a movie has become overtaken with its own sense of importance, to the point where it finds it necessary to broadcast loudly from start to finish how you ought to feel about the subject matter, the way a hectoring activist might hassle passers-by via a bullhorn.
Yet for all of those flaws, as well as others, "The Conspirator" is still worth seeing, simply because it employs its dishonest and manipulative tactics in support of a most unusual group: white Southerners.
Yes, let the record show that for the first time in recent memory, a Hollywood movie
about the Civil War features a Confederate figure in that all-important
"sympathetic victim" role! The sheer gutsiness of such a gesture on the part of stalwart ol'
liberal Redford is a thing to be admired and treasured; it compensates for a multitude of cinematic sins.
"The Conspirator" is a somewhat plodding historical courtroom drama set in the immediate aftermath of what would be called The War Between the States, or better yet, the War of Yankee Aggression, were it considered politically correct to respect Southern sensitivities on the subject. The nation has been newly reunited by force, the South having been raped, burned, and looted by Sherman and Sheridan and their thugs, acting under the direct command of President Lincoln. Unsurprisingly, some Southerners are aching for payback. In a move that recalls the "no holds barred/no prisoners" approach recently employed by the Navy SEALs against a certain bearded and grubby diabetic Saudi refugee hiding in Pakistan, the famous actor John Wilkes Booth storms the presidential box at Ford's Theater during a play on the evening of Good Friday, plugs Lincoln in the back of the head with a pistol, jumps to the stage, theatrically bellows, "Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!" and limps away to a waiting horse all in the presence of gasping theatergoers and performers alike.
Attempts are also made against Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, touching off a national uproar that Redford rather unsubtly compares to 9/11. Booth and his compatriots are hunted down relentlessly in the days following the night of violence; the hobbled actor himself winds up getting "Bin Laden-ed" with extreme prejudice on a remote farm in northern Virginia, where he is felled by a bullet from a soldier who, we are told, is acting against orders (wink wink, nudge nudge). The others, taken alive, are bound over for a military-tribunal show trial, leading four of them to a very public hanging that is meant to send a message.
Whatever the constitutional status of the tribunal and its proceedings, the men are certainly guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. But one woman is also taken into custody, a widow named Mary Surratt, a fiercely proud Southern partisan whose relationship to the entire affair nevertheless remains sketchy. Mary ran the boarding house in Washington where the conspirators, including her son John, met and plotted; but evidence against her seems scant, to say the least. Still, the new president and his cabinet are out for blood, the guilty verdict is essentially predetermined, Mrs. Surratt's fate all but sealed.
Robin Wright brings a method-actress intensity to her portrayal of the ironically branded "conspirator" of the film's title; she fearlessly inhabits Mary Surratt, showing us a woman whose steely, stoic resolve and flinty-tough exterior thinly conceal a heart running over with misery and sorrow. She is the bloodied, battered South personified; her wounds still fresh and raw, she comports herself with determination and dignity, even as she is imprisoned in a tiny, wretched cell and subjected to harsh and continuous humiliation by her gloating captors.
The former Mrs. Sean Penn's performance is certainly the most visually and emotionally
captivating aspect of the movie. Clad in a black dress of mourning, her hair done up in a
tight, black bun, her wan face a picture of simultaneous grief and prayerful supplication,
emaciated fingers tirelessly working her rosary beads, Mary gives the impression of one
resigned to ascend the gallows, who only hopes for a better life once she goes to her
The plot of "The Conspirator" is hardly worth recounting, because, trust me, you've seen it all before, in one guise or another. A handsome young attorney and former Union soldier is appointed to defend Mary Surratt; he reluctantly accepts; gradually, over the course of the trial, he goes from extreme skepticism toward her claims of innocence to great admiration of her character; he becomes her tireless advocate, in and out of the courtroom, and in so doing he loses his wife, his friends, and his respectable place in society, becoming a pariah as the price of speaking truth to power.
True, it's all rather TV-movie-ish in its predictable plot trajectory (or "story arc," as annoying people like to say these days). And though it is indeed "based on a true story," we all know what that really means when it comes to historical accuracy. Far more interesting is the manner in which "The Conspirator" departs from the established hive mind of our day and challenges the bogus, politically correct consensus regarding the Civil War, even as it pounds home a message that is as ultimately as liberal as any Norman Lear-produced TV show or Alan J. Pakula-directed movie from the 1970s.
Perhaps, just as "only Nixon could go to China," so only an aging Hollywood-Left dinosaur such as Redford could give us a film in which the victorious Northern government is vindictive, cruel, and deeply corrupt; and where an elegantly tragic and exquisitely proper Southern lady (and devout Catholic, to boot) is the essence of virtue; and where the issue of Negro slavery is hardly mentioned, much less continually harped upon.
I don't expect those aesthetic sins to go unpunished, but perhaps the iconic Sundance Kid just doesn't give a damn these days. If so, kudos to him. Ω
May 20, 2011
Published in 2011 by WTM Enterprises.
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