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The Conspirator

We’re a little over four months away from the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. (Imagining that upcoming media commemoration, I can hear the drone of the talking heads and see the instant-replay World Trade Center apocalypse footage now.) Along with that somber day of remembrance, there will be another, less important, but still noteworthy anniversary: This fall will mark 10 years of 9/11 movies. Of course, they didn’t start that day — though in a sense, you could argue that they did. The endless tape-loop footage of the planes crashing into the towers, the towers collapsing, the chaos and the horror, all added up to a kind of small-screen movie of the event, one that has taken up a permanent residence in our minds.

Nevertheless, I’m really talking about big, earnest Hollywood movies with big, earnest Hollywood messages, the kind that have tried to “make sense” of the tragedy and its aftermath, to explore the realities of the post-9/11 world by stuffing bits and pieces of it into mournful and tidy dramatic forms. I’m talking about pictures like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), or Reign Over Me (2007), starring a sad-sack Adam Sandler (looking like he’s been made up for some VH1 production of The Bob Dylan Story) as a man who lost his family on 9/11, or the Jake Gyllenhaal dragged-out-of-the-headlines torture drama Rendition (2007), or political action muckrakers like The Kingdom (2007) and Green Zone (2010). (For the record, I’m not talking about documentaries, which are another ballgame. Yes, some of them have mattered a lot. But that’s a whole other column.)

The latest of these well-meaning attempts to mold 9/11 and its aftermath into a piece of dramatic entertainment is Robert Redford’s The Conspirator. On the surface, you might not even think that’s so, since the movie is a courtroom drama set 150 years ago, just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yet Redford uses that other rending national tragedy as a giant metaphor. The movie is about a young Civil War hero, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who is assigned, as an inexperienced Washington lawyer, to defend a woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who’s accused of being part of a conspiracy to kill the president. It doesn’t take Aiken long to figure out that the proceeding is really a sham, a show trial — that she’s going to be found guilty, regardless of the facts, and that it’s all part of the government’s attempt to give the nation closure through an officially sanctioned act of legal vengeance.

In The Conspirator, Redford goes back to one of the only events in American history that tore at the country’s identity as violently as 9/11 did. And he demonstrates that what happened back then, during the trial of Mary Surratt, amounted to the squashing of rights, the twisting of protocol, the suspension of justice for “the sake of the nation.” Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline, was the Secretary of War under Lincoln, and he makes the argument for why Mary must be found guilty (even though she is, at least in the movie, innocent). He becomes the film’s version of Dick Cheney, taking the low road of force over constitutional safeguard. And Aiken, the last-honest-man hero (played by McAvoy with a lively glint of moral passion), realizes that if he doesn’t fight this bureaucratic railroading, he’s colluding in the destruction of the American system, the American way. The movie’s message is: In America, the ends do not — cannot — justify the means. That, the film says, is the meaning of America. Redford clearly intends this message as a commentary on all the legally dicey things that have gone on in the aftermath of 9/11: the detaining of terrorist suspects, with little or no evidence, and with no representation or deadline, in the prison at Guantánamo; the underground use of torture techniques that violate articles of the Geneva Convention; the willingness to suspend the law for the sake of an anti-terror, we-fight-fire-with-fire absolutism.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with everything that The Conspirator is saying. Yet the movie is stiff and more than a little dull, and, yes, it’s way too preachy. It felt like a lesson I didn’t need to learn. Watching the film hit me over the head with its burning topical themes, I began to realize that I’d had it with 9/11 message movies. Remember when people used to say “too soon?” Well now, at the risk of sounding politically insensitive, I was thinking: too far in the past. And, just maybe, a little too morally self-satisfied. I began to feel that the attempt by Hollywood movies to rouse the public to “action” has become its own form of complacency.

After close to a decade of 9/11 movies, I’m of two minds. Most of these movies, let’s be honest, were not very good, and they’ve had little or no impact. It’s tempting to draw a link between those two things. Yet there was one great, seismic dramatic feature that arose out of 9/11. That was Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006), which came out five years ago this week. It’s a movie that should have been an event; at the time, I imagined that people would flock to it for a kind of catharsis. It was brilliantly executed, it was neither too soon nor too late, and — small miracle — it was free of boilerplate liberal politics. It simply put you aboard that plane, dramatizing the courage of ordinary Americans in an impossible situation, letting the meanings trickle up from the dread-fueled action. And guess what? American moviegoers didn’t give a damn. They voted at the box office, and what they said is: We don’t really want to see 9/11 movies. Even if they’re this good.

There will probably never be another 9/11 movie as powerful as United 93. Yet there may well be others as middling as The Conspirator, which isn’t even Redford’s first big-screen brush with 9/11. That would be Lions for Lambs (2007), his watchable but second-rate combat Rashomon about the war in Afghanistan. I sound like I’m down on Redford, but really, I’m a major fan of what he has done as a filmmaker. His best movies — Ordinary People, Quiz Show — were galvanizing, because they took us behind the scenes of things (the intense personal drama of psychotherapy, the twisting of reality on television) that movies hadn’t fully shown us before. I’d like to see him do that again. But before Redford, or anyone else, makes another movie about 9/11, they would do well to make sure they’ve got something to say that we don’t already know.

So what are your feelings about 9/11 movies? Have any of them meant anything to you? And as the anniversary approaches, is there a topic emerging from the post-9/11 world that you’d like to see Hollywood tackle?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

The Conspirator
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes