At the Movies: The Conspirator, Miral

It’s history week at the movies. At least around here. I punted “Rio” because I’m burned out on animated singing-and-dancing animal movies. I skipped “Scream 4” because I tried reading a short synopsis of the previous three movies but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

The Conspirator

Robert Redford directs this historical drama about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a solid if not inspired take on an important moment in American history.

James McAvoy stars as Frederick Aiken, a decorated Union soldier  who has returned to his pre-war  role as a lawyer. He’s a rising star working for Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

When the president is assassinated, seven men and one woman are arrested for the crime. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) wants these people hanged as soon as possible to send a message — so he arranges for them to be tried by a military tribunal instead of a jury of their peers.

Senator Johnson appears to be the only one willing to speak out in favor of a fair trial, but even he’s not willing to step into the fire and represent any of the suspects. So he orders Aiken to do it.

Aiken winds up as the reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), owner of the boarding house where the conspirators met. Surratt’s son is also a suspect in the case but he has escaped capture.

Aiken initially has no sympathy for Surratt even as she maintains her innocence. But as he investigates the case and works with Surratt and her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), he does begin to feel like she’s being railroaded.

As Aiken begins to work the case with all his skill it proves costly to him both professionally and personally. It doesn’t help that Stanton is determined to do everything in his considerable power to see to it that everyone on trial pays the ultimate price.

“The Conspirator” offers a compelling glimpse into a time in American history when emotion and fear ran roughshod over fairness and justice. Make whatever comparisons to recent events you will.

It’s a well-made period drama with convincing costumes and sets. The talented cast do fine work.

Did it work for me? Better than sitting through a high school social studies lecture.

Miral

Moving on to more contemporary events, “Miral” looks at the ongoing Arab/Israeli conflict through the eyes of four women. It’s an ambitious project — probably too ambitious as we never really get to know the women well.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal, the film starts off with the story of Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). While walking down the street one morning in the late 1940s, Hind encounters several orphaned children. She marches them back home, which is later turned into an institute for children in need.

Next, the story turns to Nadia (Yasmine Al Massr), a teenager who runs away from home to escape an abusive father. She becomes a dancer but ends up in prison after striking a woman who insulted her. Here she meets Fatima (Ruba Blal), who tried to set off a bomb in a movie theater.

Nadia gets out of prison and marries Fatima’s brother Jamal (Alexander Siddig). They have a daughter which brings us, at last, to Miral (Freida Pinto).

Miral is enrolled in Hind’s institute and grows up safe behind its walls, but she reaches those impressionable teenage years just as the first Intifada breaks out. Miral wants to join the Palestinian struggle against the wishes of Hind and her father. Things get more complicated once Miral gets involved with a militant leader (Omar Metwally).

“Miral” is a decidedly one-sided account of the strife in the Middle East, but it’s not a documentary, it’s a Palestinian woman’s version of events, so that’s to be expected. And it’s not a totally anti-Israeli screed — Miral’s cousin is dating a Jew who comes across as one of the film’s more sympathetic characters.

Director Julian Schnabel tries to cover a lot of ground and that works to the film’s disadvantage. The sections on Nadia and Fatima feel incomplete, especially Nadia’s motivation.

Did it work for me? “Miral” could have been a stronger film, but I found it worth the time.

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