The Conspirator


The Conspirator

Robin Wright's bodyguards have had enough of her Civil War fetish.

(2010) Historical Drama (Roadside Attractions) James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meaney, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Stephen Root, James Badge Dale, Johnny Simmons, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Groff, Marcus Hester. Directed by Robert Redford

Sometimes in the course of a nation great events take place that change everything. Sometimes these events are terrible tragedies in which the nation’s safety is compromised. Is it during these times when the essence of that nation must be compromised in order to maintain the nation’s safety?

Such a time would be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Simultaneous attempts on the lives of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also made, unsuccessfully. It was immediately apparent that the heinous actions were the results of a conspiracy, at the head of which was actor John Wilkes Booth (Kebbell).

Booth had met at the boarding house of Mary Surratt (Wright) with her son John (Simmons) and fellow conspirators David Herold (Hester) and Lewis Payne (Reedus). When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) essentially took over the government, he had the lot of them arrested including Mrs. Surratt. Only her daughter Anna (Wood) was spared.

The conspirators were brought before a military tribunal presided over by General David Hunter (Meaney) and prosecuted by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Huston). The mood of the country was such that few lawyers wanted to risk their careers representing them. However Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson) agreed to represent Mrs. Surratt, assigning the case to his associate Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a hero of the Union Army.

Aiken is loathe to represent Surratt, feeling her guilty – if she didn’t know what was going on under her own roof with her own son then by God she should have – and this feeling is echoed by his good friends Nicholas Baker (Long) and William Hamilton (Dale), as well as his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Bledel). Gradually, Aiken raises some doubts about Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and is certainly disturbed by the apparent railroading of the boarding house owner by Stanton for political purposes. He will give up friendships, his career and a potential marriage in order to save her.

Redford is a first-class director who doesn’t make a whole lot of movies but when he does they’re always interesting and this is no exception. Said to be historically accurate with the transcripts of the trial providing dialogue, he creates the atmosphere and look of post-Civil War Washington meticulously.

As you’d expect with a movie being directed by Redford, there’s a first-rate cast. McAvoy is the lead here and he does his usual strong job. It becomes necessary for him to change from stiff-necked and unyielding to having doubts about not only the guilt of his clients but also of the means by which they are being tried. Wilkinson plays a savvy politician who distances himself from the trial while keeping true to his convictions. Wilkinson is another terrific character actor who specializes in playing characters reacting to moral dilemmas. He may be soft-spoken but he projects a great deal of power.

Wright, who has dropped the Penn from her name since divorcing Sean, plays Surratt enigmatically which is as it should be because so little is known about the woman. She is a fiercely protective mother (repeatedly telling Aiken not to besmirch her son’s name in order to save her) and a proud Southern sympathizer. Whether or not she actually plotted Lincoln’s assassination is not known to history – although David Herold, who attacked Seward, reportedly insisted she was innocent – but one gets the feeling Redford and Solomon believed she was.

There are modern parallels for this story, particularly in our handling of the prisoners at Gitmo and Al-Gharib, as well as the freedoms we’ve given up in the name of security. As 9-11 has irrevocably changed us as a nation, so too did the Lincoln assassination. History tells us that the process of reconstruction was spearheaded by radical elements in the Republican Party which was far more interested in punishing the South and creating economic opportunities for Northern business interests than in re-integrating the Confederate states back into the Union. As a result, the Southern economy would be in shambles for decades, carpetbaggers would loot the former Confederate states, education would lag to the point where the cotton belt states continue to be among the worst in measurable education statistics even today and a rift between South and North would continue to divide the country in many ways throughout the years through now.

Lincoln certainly would have chosen a different path to reconstruction; one that would have been forgiving and welcoming. His assassination by Booth would have far-reaching consequences for this nation and for the South in particular. How our handling of Iraqi prisoners, how we react to the eroding of our freedoms are going to have far-reaching consequences for our future. This is not only a historic drama, it is also a cautionary tale.

REASONS TO GO: Even though I knew what Surratt’s fate was, I was still on the edge of my seat. Relevant not only in a historical sense but also for today’s events.

REASONS TO STAY: I get the sense that Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon were making assumptions about Suratt’s guilt/innocence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first production of the American Film Company, a production company dedicated to making movies about the United States that are historically accurate.  

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie takes place in enclosed spaces, it still has the grand epic sweep that requires a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Water for Elephants

The A-Team


The A-Team

Here's another plan coming together.

(20th Century Fox)  Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney, Henry Czerny, Brian Bloom, Omari Hardwick, Yul Vazquez, Maury Sterling, Terry Chen. Directed by Joe Carnahan

Adapting a beloved television show into a major motion picture carries its own pitfalls as well as a built-in audience. That makes it something of a double-edged sword for the filmmakers; how to keep fans of the original show satisfied while delivering something that stands apart from the original.

Colonel Hannibal Smith (Neeson) heads up a team of Army Rangers who specialize in tackling jobs that most covert teams would run away from screaming like little girls. They never fail because of their specialized skills; Cpl. Faceman “Face” Beck (Cooper) is a smooth lady’s man who is second in command on the team; Cpl. B.A. Baracus (Jackson) is as strong as an ox and is the team’s driver while Capt. H.M. Murdock (Copley) is just on this side of insane (and maybe on the other side) and is the team’s pilot.

They are in the process of leaving Iraq when they receive a visit from two separate people; one is Captain Charissa Sosa (Biel) who has a past with Face, but has come to warn the team to stay out of Baghdad. The other is a smarmy slimy CIA Agent named Lynch (Wilson) – one of many, apparently, with that name – who has a mission for the “Alpha” team; to retrieve plates from the U.S. mint that renegade Iraqis have stolen to print their own U.S. currency. While Hannibal’s superior officer, General Morrison (McRaney) has some reservations, ultimately he decides to allow Hannibal to go, even though it violates direct orders so this mission is strictly “off the books.”

It also pisses off a mercenary from the Black Forest Corporation by the name of Brock Pike (Bloom) whose team was originally set to retrieve the plates but is now being moved aside for Hannibal’s cast of characters. It’s a very tough job involving getting aboard a moving semi while avoiding a convoy of heavily armed trucks escorting the semi, but the A-Team pulls it off.

Unfortunately, when they return to base General Morrison is killed when his jeep explodes and the Black Forest team absconds with the plates. Despite their protests of innocence, the A-Team is accused – and convicted – of colluding with the mercenaries and get sent to prison.

Of course, no prison will hold them for long and with the help of Lynch – who wants to retrieve the plates – the A-Team escape from the four separate penitentiaries that are incarcerating them and go about the business of retrieving the stolen plates, find out who set them up and clear their names in the process. How? Hannibal has always got a plan in mind…

Director Joe Carnahan has a history of quirky movies like Smokin’ Aces to his credit. This is his biggest assignment to date, and he doesn’t do a bad job at all, considering the limitations he has to work with and they are the ones that came with the property.

One of the problems with any television series is that they have a tendency to have a very similar modus operandi for each episode; the details may be different but they tend to follow the same plot outline. When a big budget movie remakes a TV show, generally the film wants to retain many of the same elements of the show in order to establish continuity between the show and the movie; this is to attract the original audience to the movie. However, this can lead to the movie feeling more like a retread than a re-imagining.

To be honest, there is some of that here; however, enough of the movie is fresh and new enough to distance it from the show and make it a little more 21st century, a little different.

Part of the reason for that is the cast. There was some criticism of the casting in online circles which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Neeson is one of the finest actors in the world and while this is a role he doesn’t usually tackle, he is excellent in creating a Hannibal Smith that recalls George Peppard’s character but is completely Neeson.

He’s solid but Copley, so tremendous in District 9, makes Murdock fascinating; you want to see more of him every time he’s onscreen. Like the Dwight Schultz Murdock, he’s crazy like a fox; just sane enough to make you wonder how crazy he really is. Copley plays the character as a cross between Scott Bakula and Robin Williams. Cooper further cements his standing as a rising star; Face is not only a lady’s man but also a brilliant military strategist. Cooper makes both sides of the character believable and does it with leading man charisma.

Patrick Wilson, impressive as a middle-aged hero in Watchmen, plays a very different character here and he’s quite good. He’s shown some real versatility in his performances and is moving into the territory of actors I look forward to seeing in whatever role he might be cast in. He makes for a terrific villain, almost to the level of my favorite bad guys Alan Rickman and Sean Bean.

As summer movies go, The A-Team is a perfect fit. It’s frenetically paced, light-hearted, well-acted and above all, fun. When I go into a theater on a hot summer day (or even a warm summer evening), I want to forget my cares and be taken on a delightful ride. Here’s a movie that fits that bill to a Mister T.

REASONS TO GO: This new A-Team does surprisingly well. The action sequences are seriously fun and the pacing is fast enough to keep us off-balance. Wilson makes a great villain.

REASONS TO STAY: The same problems the TV show the movie is based on haunt the adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of big bang explosions which may frighten the tykes; there is some bad language as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo and Hannibal smokes cigars throughout. In other words, probably mature pre-teens and above for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head judge at the court martial of the team is named Carnahan after the director; also an actor credited for “The Greater Escape” movie shown during the Murdock escape sequence is Reginald Barclay, the name of a character played by Dwight Schultz who played Murdock in the original television show.  

HOME OR THEATER: Big action movies deserve big screens; see it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Killers