Robert Redford’s creaky but absorbing courtroom drama-cum-history lesson presents a vindictive American government trampling the Constitution in order to avenge a national trauma. And then congratulates itself for asking, “Sound familiar?”
In The Conspirator, Robert Redford’s due process–driven morality tale, Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt, the only female co-conspirator charged in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Yes—sometimes tediously so. In The Conspirator, Robin Wright stars as Mary Surratt, the Confederate-friendly Maryland woman accused on circumstantial evidence of abetting the plot that killed Abraham Lincoln. As it happens, Surratt ran a boardinghouse frequented by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and his collaborators, including her own son John (Johnny Simmons), who skipped town immediately after the assassination, leaving his mother to get hauled into an unabashedly hostile military tribunal. But at least this Mary Surratt has James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a young Union war-hero lawyer who becomes her defender.
Opting always for the obvious over the ambiguous, with rhetoric seemingly lifted from the outraged bumper stickers of the Bush II years, James Solomon’s script lacks the timeless moral force of, say, an Arthur Miller play. But as a hunk of Redford-esque piety, it’ll do. It would help if we could actually feel Redford yearning for the good old days of big-screen didacticism, but it’s more like he’s on auto-pilot. The one thing that a movie with a bleeding heart shouldn’t be is bloodless, and this one is close to it.
Nobody said it’d be easy to dramatize a battered young nation coming to grips with the value of due process. Or, O.K., Redford and Wright may have said that to each other a few times. All evidence suggests that they’ve enjoyed a mutually encouraging and generally unchallenging rapport. Sitting under gauzy shafts of light in a sort of 1860s proto-Guantanamo, Wright looks austere and dignified as a martyr to the history we were doomed to repeat. The still-open question of Surratt’s possible involvement with the assassination scheme becomes so abstract that it does her the compound injustice of reduction to mere symbolism.
The nice lad playing her lawyer, meanwhile, goes about his conscience-kindling and speechifying with similar constancy. Nudged along by Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson, the former attorney general who threw the case in his lap, McAvoy’s Aiken dutifully altercates with his opponent, the vulpine prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), and with the spiteful Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (a cardboard cutout wiggled by Kevin Kline). The equally unchallenged supporting cast also includes Colm Meaney as General David Hunter, who presided over Surratt’s trial; Evan Rachel Wood as her long-suffering daughter Anna; and, absurdly, Justin Long, in a silly mustache, as Aiken’s fictive battlefield pal.
Closing credits remind us that the actual Aiken went on, post-Surratt, to rake muck at The Washington Post. Of course, Redford once did too, in All The President’s Men. But that seems like ancient history now.