The assassination of Abraham Lincoln isn’t exactly an obscure chapter in U.S. history, and even if you’ve never heard of Mary Surratt — the boarding-house owner accused of helping John Wilkes Booth and his posse plot the attack on the president — the fact that a movie has been made about her trial is a pretty strong indication of how the story is going to end.
Robert Redford, who directed The Conspirator, has a hit-and-miss record as a filmmaker: He made his debut with the wonderful Ordinary People (loathed by many film buffs for stealing the Best Picture Oscar from Raging Bull), and his 1950s drama Quiz Show remains one of the most underrated films of the 1990s.
But Redford’s recent output as a director — the ridiculousr The Horse Whisperer, the Ambien equivalent of The Legend of Bagger Vance, and the exasperatingly didactic Lions for Lambs— has been the work of an aging artist who has lost his touch for dynamic, engrossing storytelling. The Conspirator hits a new nadir for Redford: Sitting through this stage-bound, talky, stiffly-acted movie reminded me of having to endure the Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World (one of the few existing bits of proof that Disney had a dark and evil side).
Instead of exploring how the country’s outpouring of grief and anger over Lincoln’s murder led to civil-rights violations and legal steamrolling in a country still healing from a ferocious and costly war, The Conspirator lectures about how the Constitution must be upheld at all costs, regardless of extenuating circumstance or appearance of guilt. Redford is obviously drawing modern-day equivalents to Guantanamo and rendition tactics, but by trying so hard to give the story a contemporary subtext, he ends up glossing over the period details that would have made The Conspirator much more interesting.
Robin Wright Penn plays Mary as a martyr, willing to die before giving up the location of her fugitive son (who may also have participated in Lincoln’s death). She clutches rosary beads, prays and gives the bullying judges pious looks. James McAvoy is Frederick Aiken, a Civil War hero and young lawyer assigned to defend Mary, whom he initially believe is guilty but gradually changes his mind. By insisting on providing the accused with a proper defense, Frederick suffers public humiliations, such as having his country-club membership revoked. The horror! Faring worst is Kevin Kline as the dour Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whose zero tolerance toward anyone with even the slightest air of suspicion would have made him a prime candidate for the Bush administration. The story of The Conspirator was worth telling, but a much lighter hand and a lot less moustache-twirling would have served the material better.
Cast: Robin Wright Penn, James McAvoy, Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Norman Reedus, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Groff.
Director: Robert Redford.
Screenwriter: James D. Solomon.
Producers: Brian Peter Falk, Bill Holderman, Robert Redford.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 123 minutes. Brief vulgar language, brief bloody violence, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.