The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Robert Redford's 'The Conspirator': A classic 9/11 movie?

September 10, 2010 | 12:00 pm

Robert_tredford Robert Redford may be past his prime in Hollywood, but he's still brimming with enough media star power to land major stories today in both my paper and the New York Times. The pieces, including an especially interesting one by my colleague Betsy Sharkey, largely focus on the "irony," as Redford put it, of this once hugely influential Hollywood star and filmmaker having to schlep his new indie movie to the Toronto Film Festival, where he hopes to find a distributor.

It is definitely a sign of the times that this Hollywood icon, who once had studios at his beck and call, is now feeling the need to beat the drums to get some attention for his new film, "The Conspirator." The movie, which stars Robin Wright and James McAvoy, is a historical drama set in the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, when seven men and one woman (played by Wright) are charged with conspiring to murder the president. The film was financed with independent money because it's virtually impossible to persuade a major studio to back a real-life historical drama today, at least unless you jump through a thousand hoops -- like keeping the budget under $20 million or providing your own financing and then loading the film up with a couple of big stars (working for peanuts, of course).

But for me, the most fascinating aspect of Redford's new film, which I saw recently, isn't its uphill struggle to find a distributor. It is the historical resonance of the story it tells, which makes it a perfect film to have its Toronto debut on Sept. 11. After Lincoln was shot and killed, America was traumatized, much as it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And as the film makes clear, the War Department, run by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played in the film by Kevin Kline), is determined to quench the country's thirst for vengeance, even if that means bending the law and sending a seemingly innocent woman to the gallows. It's not a pretty picture, certainly no prettier a picture than the one showing terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay prisons, some held under the flimsiest of pretexts, many without access to proper legal protections. 

When Sharkey asked Redford about the historical parallels to today, he backpedaled, saying it was "up to the audience" to decide how to interpret the story. But I think he's being way too cautious. What makes the film stick in your mind isn't so much its depiction of Civil War-era strife as its unsettling relationship to many of the events in modern-day America, which has struggled to retain its ideals while battling the scourge of terrorism. If anyone is going to want to buy this film and put it into multiplexes, it won't just be because they're impressed by Wright's performance as Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the United States government. It will be because they see a film whose story is loaded with reminders that if we cannot remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it. 

Photo: Robert Redford at the opening ceremonies this January for the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times