The spirit of John Ford and his ilk has been lost over the years, traded in for dire shock and awe at the gasping cineplex. While the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg have kept classicism alive through their art, it is in desperately short supply.
Robert Redford shined in his glory days as not only a gorgeous golden boy, but an underrated thespian who "got" the guilt and hurt beneath the all American outside of his strapping characters. As a director, he has shown an acute eye for detail, a sure sense of pace and direction, as well as a heart which searches for the purity of truth.
His Oscar winning directorial debut, Ordinary People, was a rigorously unsentimental glimpse at familial discord and self loathing. With The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Lions for Lambs, he has crafted a thrillingly singular oeuvre which is nostalgic, old fashioned, forward and completely underrated as far as American popular culture and mainstream film criticism are concerned. There is something endearingly old guard about his storytelling and visual style which stands apart from popular opinion.
Which is why his newest film, the rabble rousing Lincoln assassination drama, The Conspirator, is such a joy to behold. Utilizing a cinematic language which would have done a Vidor or Fleming proud, Redford recreates Civil War era Washington D.C. and the scandal and outrage surrounding Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a boarding house proprietress accused of being a rebel conspirator in Lincoln's assassination.
The film is all about the visual language, which reminds us of our roots in simple, historical narratives, though the dialogue is important, and well done, fitting into the period schema of the piece. Redford economically creates an epic with what is said to have been very little money for this type of film. He takes advantage of every resource, recalling Edgar G. Ulmer or Joseph H. Lewis in their shrewd auteurism.
Newton Thomas Sigel bathes the film in a daguerreotype glow which burnishes the images with a ghostly etherealism. Mark Isham builds up a strong central theme which communicates Surratt's spirit and the times, then branches from their into enchantment. Though mostly a courtroom drama and a yesteryear Liberal muckraker, highlighting outrage and hypocrisy, Redford makes it feel fresh and urgent.
James MacAvoy heralds the lead with a just right distance, torn between what everybody thinks and what he feels inside. Robin Wright has rarely been better. Her tired eyes, conviction and washed out beauty make the martyr human. Tom Wilkinson, Tony Huston, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood and Alexis Bledel are all perfectly attuned to the heart of the matter.
With The Conspirator, Robert Redford slaps awake those who care and remember what it is to be American, love history, and most importantly, the dawn of Hollywood story craft.