Wise: A very Presidential day to you, Werth. It feels so good to have all this election mess behind us.
Werth: And if a Presidential election wasn't enough, Steven Speilberg is releasing his opus to Lincoln today.
Wise: An emancipator and vampire hunter.
Werth: Presidential movies could almost be a genre unto themselves. One in particular that stuck with me was Oliver Stone's mother-of-all conspiracies flick, JFK (1991). Riding high from critical and box office successes like Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Stone decided to tackle the story of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison who in 1966, attempted to uncover the hidden details of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by trying local businessman Clay Shaw for his supposed involvement in the shooting.
What starts off like a documentary complete with Martin Sheen voice-over quickly becomes an involved murder-mystery with Kevin Costner as New Orleans' answer to Jessica Fletcher.
Wise: Does he ride a bike with a basket?
Werth: Soon the web of criminal lowlifes, gay hustlers, mafioso, Cuban militants, CIA, FBI and Pentagon Black Ops operatives ensnares Garrison and his crack team of investigators, revealing a confusing jumble of possible motives and participants in what was arguably one of the most significant events in modern American history.
Stone is fully invested in this tale that he's telling—and I am calling it a tale, because much of it is either unverifiable or has been disputed by various sources. On the one hand, this makes Stone look like a late-night public access television nutjob, but his cinematic exposé is so skillfully directed that it cannot be brushed-off so easily.
Stone cannily mixes documentary footage, traditional cinematic camerawork, and vérité-style recreations to give the appearance of visual truth to what he's saying. The flashbacks are dream-like—handheld camera and fast-cuts that make us feel as if we are remembering these fragments. It is a very smart technique that mixes the "truth" into what we are seeing, making us leave the theater with the feeling that we've discovered what really happened.
Wise: I'll bet it wasn't Colonel Mustard in the parlor with the third gunman.
Werth: The film takes itself very seriously for over three hours. Costner's final "coup d'etat"-filled, patriotic appeal to the jury is painful—like a root canal performed by a civics teacher. But within this ode to paranoia and the essence of America is a veritable who's-who of the best film actors from the Nineties.
The melange of Southern performances includes Sissy Spacek as Garrison's long-suffering wife; Joe Pesci as what is best described as a foul-mouthed grandmother with an ill-fitting wig and Joan Crawford scarebrows; Gary Oldman as marble-mouthed Lee Harvey Oswald; and
Best Supporting Actor nominee Tommy Lee Jones in a double-role as Shaw who is sanctimoniously butch while he is questioned, but an effete dandy in flashbacks where he paws Kevin Bacon and smokes a cigarette like Quentin Crisp.
Wise: Are you sure it was cigarettes that he was smoking?
Werth: JFK netted 8 Oscar noms including Best Picture and Best Director, but for Stone this marked the last time he has been seriously considered for either statuette. And if Stone has been haunted by this ill-fated president, so has Hollywood. 1992 saw the release of the Michelle Pfeiffer starrer Love Field about an unhappy Texas housewife who travels to the President's funeral,
Forrest Gump memorably (and digitally) met J.F.K. in 1994's Forrest Gump, and Jonathan Demme has been reported to be involved in the screen adaptation of Stephen King's 11/22/63 about a man who travels back in time to try and stop the assassination.
Wise: Presidential assassinations must be irresistible to filmmakers because the crime unearths so much legal, political and personal drama. In The Conspirator (2010), Robert Redford dramatizes the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who was accused of being part of the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Defending her is young lawyer and Union Army veteran Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) who only takes the case at the insistence of his mentor U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson delivering the requisite moonlight and magnolia as well as a certain noble porkiness)
At first reluctant to take the case, Aiken is eventually convinced that a government plot is afoot to railroad Surratt to the gallows.
Werth: Because every assassination movie requires a crusading lawyer.
Wise: Despite a ragged beard and floppy bangs, McAvoy feels a bit anachronistic, particularly because of the obvious parallels the film makes to Abu Ghraib and and the prosecution of the current War on Terror. The prisoners are shrouded by hoods, kept in dank cells, and denied a civilian trial.
Kevin Kline plays sinister Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who manipulates events behind the scenes all in the name of providing stability in the face of national terror. Director Robert Redford, who is almost as famous for his politics as for his storied film career, pays equal attention to both his historical and allegorical subjects, but has some trouble effectively weaving the two together.
Werth: Speaking of weave, have you seem Redford's hair lately?
Wise: The best part of the film is Robin Wright's Surratt. In addition to both looking and acting believably as a 19th Century woman, she also creates a stirring portrait of a mother who would rather face down an undeserved death than condemn her son to the noose.
The rest of the cast is more or less successful: Evan Rachel Wood and Alexis Bledel have a few nice moments as Surratt's daughter and Aiken's fiancée, respectively, although Justin Long as one of Aiken's war buddies feels out of place despite his charms in other roles.
Werth: It's hard to be a Mac Guy in the late 1800's.
Wise: Despite the title, the film never fully achieves the conspiracy-mindedness that can make this type of movie so satisfying. Perhaps Redford tried to shoehorn too much nobility into the project and never allowed the secret dealings of either side to become truly unsettling. Which is unfortunate because by neutering the plotters of their machinations, he robs the heroes of their virtue.
Werth: Wise, I hope post-election exhaustion isn't going to rob me of your presence next week.
Wise: I cannot tell a lie, nothing could ever keep me away from Film Gab.