I riffed a week or two ago about moments in movies that just shut things down like that. You may be happy, unhappy or undecided about a film you’re watching, but along comes one of these moments and whap…you’re gone. Because you’ve just seen a harbinger of twenty or a hundred or a thousand similar wrong moments-to-come in this film, moments that will make you twitch or shudder or otherwise go “eewwhh,” like Humphrey Bogart did when he discovered all those leeches stuck to his chest, back and legs in The African Queen.
I experienced a dozen or so disengagement leeches during the first 20 or 30 minutes of Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator. Most of them were related to a terrible feeling I had from the get-go that I was watching a History Channel reenactment. Everything felt rote, lazy, blah…except for Kevin Kline‘s performance as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But then I went into minor convulsions over the white bushy mutton-chops that Tom Wilkinson was wearing. (Yes, abundant facial hair was very much in fashion among older men in the mid to late 1800s and into the early 1900s. I realize that.)
And then came the decisive killshot when John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) snuck into the presidential booth at Ford’s, shot President Lincoln, leapt onto the stage and broke his leg. John Wilkes Booth wasn’t the acting equal of Edwin Booth, his older brother, but he knew from Shakespeare and presumably had one of those distinguished-sounding, highly trained, from-the-diaphragm actor’s voices. Except when Kebbell shouts to the crowd “Sic semper tyrannis! The South has been avenged!,” he doesn’t have the voice. He sounds like a Teamster driver, like a guy from craft services, like a screenwriter or a producer doing a short cameo because he and ther director are buddies.