The past few years have given Abraham Lincoln a bit of a moment on the big screen. There was Lincoln, which snagged Daniel Day-Lewis his third Best Actor Oscar, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which revised history to make him a supernatural character, and Killing Lincoln, which was a highly related mini-series. But before those three marched out in quick succession in 2012, there was The Conspirator about the fallout from Lincoln’s assassination. These have varying degrees of success with The Conspirator falling squarely in the middle.
The major problem with the film is that it’s so tasteful as to be bland. Each and every frame feels like it’s watermarked with “For Your Consideration.” There’s a great story to be told in here somewhere, but this reserved and overly tasteful approach leads to tedium here. This seems to be a common criticism with much of Robert Redford’s output as a director. A concluding scene at the gallows should pack an emotional wallop, but a hanging scene has never been so clinical and removed of emotional impact before. This blasé approach never allows for us to gain access or insight into the characters motivations,
The film feels more concerned with trying to make this case remind us of modern day discussions about war criminals, torture and the power of the government to do as it pleases. But these allusions are so protracted and tastefully removed that they never truly become anything more than window dressing. A distinct point-of-view about these talking points, or about the character’s actions, would have made for a better film. Or if it had bothered to really interaction with these political allusions beyond mere flirtation and placed more firmly in the moral quagmire it presents, we could have had a truly special film.
But Redford at least has a game cast that performs beyond reproach. James McAvoy and Robin Wright modulate their characters so that their growing disillusionment with their situation and slowly dawning realizations are effectively handled. A large supporting ensemble delivers solid work from top to bottom, with the notable exception being Justin Long who is too modern for a period film. But Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Norman Reedus, Evan Rachel Wood, Stephen Root, James Badge Dale, Danny Huston all perform well in their limited roles. So the problem isn’t the script or the cast, it’s Redford’s direction which seems to aim squarely at a middle-of-the-road prestige format for a story that demands a point-of-view.