The Conspirator

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 28, 2015

I am thinking about something that I once heard from a very nice, very dedicated pastor in a presentation to some local youth. “In my experience,” he said, “PG-13 just means that there are at least thirteen instances of pornography and gratuitousness.” Again, this man is extremely devoted, very sincere and loving. He goes about doing good, and that most cheerfully. And this particular observation about movies is nonsense. Yes, there are lots of crass movies, and lots of pretty reasonable movies containing crass bits. That’s a problem. But “pornography” does appear in the dictionary, and can be defined in a number of precise ways. To be generous, the pastor’s specific use of this term is only accurate in a vague, vernacular way. To be more exact, it is incorrect, and might even be more harmful than not.

Pornographic and gratuitous? In fact, how many PG-13-rated films are actually like The Conspirator? You know, careful, calm, convicted, conscientious—in other words, adult, in the best sense of that word. Tons of them! Wasn’t, isn’t that why the MPAA ratings were instituted the first place? The rationale was that some things are and should be for grown-ups, and that grown-ups are up to and in need of complex and challenging material. 1967, now.

I find this film to be a bit too gleamy and glistening and photographic. That’s merely a matter of taste, though, and doesn’t really pertain to the present issue at all. More importantly I also find it to be a really felicitous educational picture, which is obviously what they mean it to be. Consider the source, meaning not only Robert Redford, but this new American Film Company. This is the first one out of the gate, and it’d be nice if there were lots more where that came from. Or, if not them, somebody, or lots of somebodies. These people are making a fairly unexceptionable, incontrovertible point, even though the people who respond to things on the internet will probably take exception and find controversy. That point is that there are things we should know, and they should be prepared and presented with a degree of detail and scholarly decorum. Which could and should also mean and lead to entertainment. Aristotle! Horace!

In that spirit, and with those objectives, The Conspirator gives us a bit of action, and a ton of talk—Redford started out as a theatre guy, after all. This is needful, because language is the best medium for a lot of important things. Ideas, for instance. Look at this concatenation. We have, in this retrospective and historical obscurity, a load of mixed motives and contradictory objectives, vying partialities while everyone urges varying totalities. Look at the Kline/Stanton situation (in the wrong, and knowingly, and for a reason that has considerable merit) as one example among many, in the film and in life. It’s Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond all at once. John Bunyan, and Socrates, and ranks of discouraged right-wingers feel to withdraw from the whole mess. But political scientists and the people who teach civics classes don’t see that as a viable option, since it cedes the field to villainy. Instead of that they keep clarifying, seeking and sometimes even finding a way through the morass.

Filmmakers can do the same thing, and contrary to another common current sentiment, this doesn’t necessarily, remotely make them liberals. It does make them more than mere historians, though, if mere historians ever actually do this. One of the reasons that the past is so important is because of the present. Former questions and conflicts are never over, or irrelevant. That seems a point that most of us could easily concede. Not so much the next one, which is inevitably exceptionable, and controvertible. How could it be otherwise, since these things are important! Of course this story is also about the Department of Homeland Security. These filmmakers are against it, or against its excesses. But notice that they also give Rumsfeld and Chaney the floor.

Final thing. The reason that this can all lead to spirited but peaceful conversation is that when we approach complexity in a non-partisan, or even reasonably partisan way, then we’ll always find something to agree with. The defendant’s attorney goes on to establish the proto-Washington Post! The Redford connection here (cf. Pakula, 1976) is amusing, but more important is the place of the Press in the prosecution of democracy. Make that the Press, or the Media. You know, PG-13 films! Furthermore, this is a real life parallel to the heartrending, powerful central situation in John Ford’s 1939 milestone, Young Mr. Lincoln. How can you give up one of your sons? Then forward to Arthur Miller—they’re all our sons.

All of this contradiction and muddle can be most confusing, most discouraging. But it’s the opposite of gratuitous, and as far as can be from pornography. It is adult though, after a fashion, and in the most urgent and potentially uplifting away. Not only problems, but possible solutions, and the possible diplomacy and detente that can attend their being seriously and courteously considered. Thanks so much, pastors. There is so much to be wary about. And so much more besides!