I’m a little surprised at how much isn’t being made of the fact that this year – just yesterday to be specific – is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Yeah, PBS has been rerunning the Ken Burns documentary series, there are some news stories about the sudden relevance of the people who engage in reenactments of various battles, but I’m getting the sense that there’s not a lot of attention being paid to a pretty significant remembrance of a pretty significant event. I know the world has other, more immediate problems but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking a moment to mark a solemn occasion.
The anniversary is not going unnoticed on theater screens with this week’s release of The Conspirator. Directed by Robert Redford, the movie tells the story of the trial of Mary Surratt, the sole woman charged with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and her trial on that charge. Surratt, played by Robin Wright, stands accused of the conspiracy and is defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former soldier who doesn’t want the case but is still determined to see she gets a fair trial. Surratt, he finds, is also protecting another conspirator, her son, and it’s on Aiken to find him as well, all while being pressured from higher ups in the government to get a conviction and give the nation a sense of closure in this tumultuous time.
The first – and only – poster for the film does a decent job of setting up the story. A cracked and chipped statue of Lincoln is the main element in the design while to the right some copy lays out what the movie will be about by saying “One bullet killed the President. But not one man.” So it’s clear this is an investigative story in some way, shape or form. It’s pretty simple but does a decent job of getting the basic point across. I’m slightly put off by the use of a statue of Lincoln here since that almost makes the story seem more current but I get what they’re going for and that’s a relatively minor gripe.
The movie’s first trailer sets up the plot pretty extensively and well. It starts out with, naturally, the assassination of Lincoln itself and then moves on to the trials that resulted to prove a conspiracy behind the murder. There are plenty of shots of people being found and dragged into the courtroom, culminating with Suratt pleading not guilty to the charges brought against her. But it becomes clear that not everyone believes she did it and is instead taking the fall to protect her son. But her lawyer’s quest for the truth is butting up against the pressure he’s getting to just let things play out, regardless of the truth.
The trailer, especially the last half of it or so, is full of quick cuts and lots of seeming action along with pounding, dramatic music. But my guess is that oversells the movie by a fair margin and that while there are certainly surprising moments that the pulse of the movie never reaches quite such a fevered pace, instead being generally more even-keeled. That’s just a presumption based on, roughly, everything Redford has ever directed, so I feel I’m on somewhat safe ground saying that the idea of selling the movie as an action film is just designed to bring in people who don’t want to sit and watch a two-hour episode of Law & Order: 1865.
The movie’s official website puts the trailer front and center in the middle of the page. It then presents the other elements both in a nice navigation bar at the top and in a more graphic representation toward the bottom.
The first section is, of course, “About the Film,” which has a nice paragraph synopsis of the story that thankfully doesn’t get bogged down in cast and crew credits. Instead all the information about them is saved for the “Cast & Crew” section, where you can read bios of those involved.
Next up is “Redford’s Blog,” which is just what it sounds like. The director is the primary author here, mostly answering questions about working with the cast and tackling the material, though there are occasional guest posts as well from other members of the cast. I can’t say this is the most compelling content I’ve read on the web but it’s nice to see something like this being used.
The “News” section has links to a few stories and reviews about the movie along with a Press Kit to download. There are then about 16 stills, mostly from the production but also a few from behind the scenes, in “Photos.”
The “Resource” section is the kind of thing I like to see on sites for historical drams. Not only are there links to get group ticket discounts and some extended clips from the movie but there are links to books about the true story for people to read and study guides for educators to check out and use.
The movie’s Facebook page has all the usual information as well as trivia games and contests to give away crew bags.
In an interesting move there was also a Twitter feed created titled @1865Lincoln that had some unique updates on it. They were a mix of facts of Lincoln and Surrat mixed in with quotes from the president’s writings and speeches. It’s certainly a better way to have a Twitter presence for a movie that takes place almost 150 years ago than pretending Surrat or someone is updating and because of that it’s clear that it’s for a movie and not a “character profile” of the kind that can quickly fall apart under their own weight.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I haven’t seen any advertising done, either on TV or online, and this isn’t exactly fertile ground for product placement.
Media and Publicity
Outside of casting and other pre-production news, the movie was largely off people’s radar until it was about to appear at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was seeking both buzz (Los Angeles Times, 9/9/10) and, surprisingly for a movie with such seemingly solid artistic credibility, a distributor (New York Times, 9/9/10), which it eventually found in Lionsgate’s Roadside Attractions division.
The movie’s appearance there also prompted the press to take a look at how it examined a little discussed aspect of the assassination (New York Times, 9/12/10) and how the themes it explores of uncertainty and paranoia are still relevant today.
Then there was discussion about how this was just one of two movies about Lincoln that were being produced (New York Times, 2/6/11), both from high-profile talent (the other one is Steven Spielberg’s long-rumored project) and both looking to tap into the love for the former president as well as the fact that the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is this year. That tie in to the anniversary and how it was being commemorated in the media was also discussed (LAT, 4/12/11) as just one example of a newer, grittier take on the subject.
Kline got some press in an interview (Los Angeles Times, 3/28/11) where he talked about the challenges in playing Stanton, who wasn’t exactly the most consistently above-board part of Lincoln’s administrative cabinet.
While I like this campaign a lot I’m also realistic enough to realize that turning people out for a historical drama that seems about as far from relevant to today’s world is an uphill battle to say the least. It’s clear that Redford is more interested in telling a real story here than in making it attractive to the mass audience and so it hasn’t been sexed up or revised to dumb down the material.
So it’s highly likely that anyone who’s not interested in the Civil War and all the stories that are and can be told about that era in our nation’s history are going to see this as a big old snooze fest. Which is is a shame since this could be a very good movie and the parallels to today’s world are pretty obvious, making it as relevant as ever.