The Conspirator: Another Dull History Lesson From Robert Redford
Set in the months after Lees surrender at Appomattox, The Conspirator follows the consequences of the fatal shot at Fords Theatrespecifically, the trial of Mary Surratt, Catholic, 42, and the owner of a Washington, D.C., boarding house, who was presented before a military tribunal as the den mother in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.
Robin Wright plays Surratt, but, seen through the limited vantage of her defense, shes not the films star. Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) decides that no Southerner can represent Surratt without compromising the case, so hands her over to Union Army vet Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). All of 28 and vainly trying to pass as older under a sparse, reddish beard, dubious ex-blue-belly Aiken becomes convinced that Surratts trial is nothing short of a railroading, headed toward judicial murder on the gallows.
Square-jawed and knotty-fingered, with the look of having been dragged around by life, Wright fits her part and period, but McAvoys Aiken is the one who carries, and stumbles with, the film. Aiken is chosen to represent Surratt in part for his wartime credentialshes introduced bleeding on a History Channel battlefieldbut nothing in McAvoys pushover peevishness suggests knowledge of command or the burdensome memory of war. This would matter little if there was any transference from Surratt, if Aiken absorbed her toughness through their partnership, but such gravitas never arrives. The story is one of idealistic youth speaking truth to power, with Kevin Klines Secretary of War Edwin Stanton the archetypal cynical insider, but after Aikens closing argument, youre mostly stirred to watch Danny Hustons prosecuting attorney break him.
Directed by Robert Redford
Opens April 15
Showing a government system as it responds to an attack, The Conspirator is Robert Redfords first film since the awfuland similarly themedLions for Lambs (2007). Redford, never the subtlest of dialectic filmmakers, has now become the browbeating professor he played in Lions, dotting rhetorical is for the audience in every scene (In times of war, the law falls silent).
His latest lecture is the debut production of the American Film Company (motto: Witness History), created by Chicago entrepreneur and Cubs owner Joe Ricketts to bring our past accurately to the screenan endeavor that, on paper at least, sounds worthy. Since Raoul Walshs John Wilkes Booth blew flash powder down Lincolns collar in Birth of a Nation, the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination have been dramatized surprisingly infrequently: Virginia Gregg played Surratt in an Ida Lupinodirected episode of The Joseph Cotten Show from 1956, while John Ford attempted a posthumous exoneration of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor accused of conspiracy after setting Booths broken leg, in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
The Conspirator, though, fails to blow dust off its period. The historically obscure figure of Aiken is hardly vivified. Courtroom scenes are stagey, with cued-up gasps and canned laughter. Redford shows some flair with assassinations and executions, but the most done to enliven the dialogue is having Aiken and Johnson talk while the latter is using the bathroom. After the first reel, theres rarely any sense of a larger polis outside the museum-room interiors, uniformly lit by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel in clear, streaming shafts of perpetual-noon sunlight. The film is a burdensome two hours, even as some scenes seem to have gone missing, like the brushed-past plot point with Shea Whigham as a witness for the defense suborned by the prosecution, wasted along with Alexis Bledel and Evan Rachel Wood.
Convicted through, essentially, a single testimony, Surratt was hanged with three others in July 1865. There is a famous photo in which you can see her swinging to their left, bound up in a black dress. Mary Surratt and Sam Mudd were both, perhaps, innocentthis is beyond movies to prove. But Redfords dudgeon and bludgeon is a mere classroom aid next to Fords mythical-historical consciousness and redemptive rawness orto seek a less canonical comparison just down the multiplex hallnext to the workmanlike plotting and fizz of The Lincoln Lawyer. Barely worth the extra credit, kids.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.