In parallel tales of plans gone awry, this movie about conspirators of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination goes much the same way as the assassins and assailants. Many stories are told about Lincoln, fewer about those who killed him, fewer still about Mary Surratt, the lone woman convicted of and hanged for her role in the president’s murder.
Director Robert Redford and James D. Solomon seize on this forgotten piece of Americana but in doing so, they trade a compelling story for a dull civics lesson on due process. Surratt, the filmmakers tell us, was a victim of a distrusting and vengeful climate stirred up by the Civil War and Lincoln’s death. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played as a non-entity by Kevin Kline) and the War Department, eager to restore calm and its authority hastily mounted a military trial for the civilian defendants.
And so 1865 Washington becomes the landscape for which Redford and company ask Americans to examine their own post-9/11 pursuit of justice, namely Guantanamo. Surratt’s guilt or innocence is immaterial and the film does little to explore that. Instead, it uses history to indict and judge present day actions and how the country does or does not continue to play loose with the Constitution.
This makes for a useful extra credit project for a high school history class but not for a good film. In choosing agenda over narrative, the filmmakers lose the stories of the people at the heart of it. Robin Wright delivers a wrought and finely tuned performance as Surratt, but her character remains literally and figuratively wrapped under layers of black silk. Only in certain moments does she become an active player in the drama of a president’s assassination. One such time is when her daughter Anna, played with restrained anguish by Evan Rachel Wood, testifies against her brother on her behalf, and the two are kept apart by a curtain of soldiers despite tearful protestation.
Similarly, Surratt’s inexperienced defender Frederick Aiken does little more than stand in as the film’s righteous conscience. James McAvoy has little character to draw on but plenty of platitudes, which he delivers with vigor. But these quickly bore and annoy Aiken’s miscast and poorly written friends, including Justin Long and Alexis Bledel, who also want to hear something more substantial than constant cries for a fair trial and about nebulous American ideals.
The story of Lincoln’s assassination is one of many unexplored strands, but these are not used to ground the historical characters and events of “The Conspirator.” One is treated to a parade of names and facts but comes away with no clearer sense about the people who (may have) conspired to kill the president nor the people involved in the trial.
Prod: Robert Redford, Brian Falk, Bill Holderman
Dir: Robert Redford
Writer: James D. Solomon
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Johnny Simmons, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Norman Reedus, Stephen Root, Jonathan Groff, John Cullum, Colm Meaney
Time: 123 min
Country: United States