With Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Robert Redford. Rated PG-13 for some violent content. 123 minutes.
THE CONSPIRATOR is Robert Redford’s eighth film as director. Though he did some fine work in “Ordinary People,” “A River Runs Through It” and “Quiz Show,” it’s been quite a while since “directed by Robert Redford” was a cause for celebration. His last two films were the misguided “Legend Of Bagger Vance” and the hopeless polemic “Lions For Lambs.” With “The Conspirator,” he has crafted a good film with an important message. One wishes it could have been great.
The story is based on the true story of the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Having just survived the Civil War, the country was aghast and wanted swift punishment against the perpetrators. Caught up in the dragnet was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) whose son was one of the conspirators and whose home was used for several meetings by them. There was no evidence that Mary Surratt knew what they were plotting or was otherwise involved.
Nonetheless, she faces a military tribunal where the trial is a mere formality. Politician Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) agrees to defend her but then quickly hands it off to Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Aiken is a war hero who fought for the Union, and a young lawyer who insists that it is justice – rather than vengeance – that should be the proper concern of the proceeding. It quickly becomes obvious that Mary is little more than a hostage being used to discover the whereabouts of her son, who has eluded the authorities.
The issues here cut to the core of what it means to be an American. Everyone – no matter what the crime of which they are accused – is entitled to an impartial hearing and a vigorous defense. A lawyer who zealously fights for the rights of his client should not be treated as if he is supportive of the crimes his client is alleged to have committed. Unfortunately for both Mary Surratt and her lawyer, the deck has been stacked against them.
There are moments in the film where one’s blood should boil. Surratt’s daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) comes to testify on her mother’s behalf and the court orders that Mary’s view be blocked so mother and daughter cannot make eye contact. Late in the story, Aiken pulls off what ought to be considered a legal miracle only to find out he’s been out-maneuvered by Secretary of State Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who wants to deliver the executions he believes the country needs and deserves.
This is one of those chapters in American history where hysteria was allowed to trump reason, and the system failed to protect those who were entitled to such protection. Instead of being outraged, however, director Redford keeps the anger at a low simmer. Yes, it was terrible and it shouldn’t have happened but look at the fine production values. This is as much historical pageant as history lesson.
“The Conspirator” is a decent film with an important story. Perhaps burned by the failure of his overly political “Lions For Lambs,” Redford decided to keep us arm’s length from the story, making this seem more like a trip through time rather than a story that ought to resonate deeply for us today. What happened to Mary Surratt was a crime. Those seeing parallels in today’s world are bringing their own knowledge of current events to the theater. The movie gives us no reason to think this is anything more than a history lesson.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.