REVIEW: The Conspirator Stumbles Under Its Moral Load, But Proudly
Robert Redford's The Conspirator tells a true, and potentially great, story: In 1865, three men and one woman were hanged for their involvement in Lincoln's assassination. The woman was Mary Surratt, who ran the Washington, D.C. boarding house where the plot was hatched; her son, John, was also wanted in connection with the assassination, but he remained in hiding while his mother stood trial in a military court. The historical evidence suggests that Surratt may have been innocent but refused to save herself at the expense of her son's life; that evidence also suggests -- at least insofar as Redford presents it -- that her trial was anything but fair.
The bad news is that The Conspirator -- which was written by James D. Solomon, from a story by Solomon and Gregory Bernstein -- doesn't have enough crackle. Instead of giving us a sense of living, breathing, history, it's stiff and formalized, like a carefully constructed diorama. But for all its snooziness, there's also something endearing about it -- the movie itself feels like a relic of bygone days, like an old letterpress handbill tucked absent-mindedly into a copy of Social Media for Dummies.
Who even makes quiet, methodical pictures about historical events anymore? The Conspirator does feel like Redford's bid for elder-statesman, serious-filmmaker status, and maybe that bid is a little naked. But so what? For every awkward misstep the movie takes -- and for every static courtroom scene that might tread dangerously close to putting you to sleep -- Redford's earnestness at least shows that he thinks about what it means to be a decent citizen, and that he understands that having a sense of where we've been as a nation might have some bearing on where we're headed.
Robin Wright stars -- if you could even consider her tight-lipped, buttoned-up performance a star turn -- as Mary Surratt, a devout Catholic who perpetually dresses in widow's weeds, perhaps as a form of self-abasement (though she is, in fact, a widow, as the movie tells us). Surratt is rounded up in the fervent witchhunt that occurs after the assassination. In one of the movie's big message lines, all of them recited so loud and clear they could be repackaged and sold as ringtones, the stunned but not immobilized Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played by an uncharacteristically maladroit Kevin Kline), asserts, "They assassinated our president. Someone must be held accountable. The people want that."
At the behest of his boss, Reverdy Johnson (a whiskery Tom Wilkinson), James McAvoy's rookie lawyer Frederick Aiken is assigned to defend Surratt. At first he, like everyone else, doubts her innocence. Little by little, as he pieces together facts of the case, and spends time getting to know the soft-spoken, God-fearing defendant, he begins to realize something isn't right in the government's rush to justice. He beseeches Surratt's daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, in an excessively high-pitched performance) to testify on her mother's behalf; that means betraying her brother, John (Johnny Simmons), whom, she seems to realize, her mother is trying to protect.
Meanwhile, Aiken's longtime, long-suffering girlfriend, Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), makes wistful, exasperated doe eyes at him: Isn't he taking all this Surratt stuff just a little too far? But Aiken is a man of sturdy principles, and luckily, McAvoy is intuitive enough to know how to play a character as more than just a set of attributes: When Aiken presses Surratt for a more truthful version of the truth than the one she's giving him, there's a mini-fire of urgency and frustration burning in McAvoy's eyes. Aiken is a human being trying to save himself from the horrors of injustice, even more than he's trying to save her.
There are several civics lessons woven in here, as you've probably guessed: When the male suspects are led into the courtroom, their heads are covered with sacks made of rough cloth, a visual cue pointing straight to Abu Ghraib and post-9/11 hysteria. And although the movie is handsomely shot (by Newton Thomas Sigel), in muted tones that resemble history-book illustrations from the 1930's more than anything else, there are long stretches where the action simply goes slack.
Still, there's maybe a little more action than there was in Redford's last picture, Lions for Lambs. But in both movies, Redford's urgency counts for something. Lions for Lambs may have been more a brief than a movie. (It laid out, in pretty plain terms, Redford's dissatisfaction with our then-government, and with liberal passivity.) But his enthusiasm generated enough electricity to keep the movie going, and The Conspirator chugs along, albeit pretty slowly, motored by the same kind of horsepower.
In some places you might find yourself wanting to giggle at certain casting details, or the way this or that character actor suddenly materializes from behind a heavy red drapery. Why, look, there's Colm Meany! Hey, isn't that Danny Huston behind those mutton chops? The most forlorn of all is Justin Long, decked out in a perfect period mustache that looks sadly out of place on his 21st-century baby face (hardly his fault).
Still, Long gives the movie's carved-from-old-floorplanks dialogue the old college try. He's part of the movie's valiant effort to be honorable and to maintain some semblance of historical accuracy. In the end, The Conspirator stumbles under the moral weight it's trying to carry. What matters, maybe, is that Redford didn't take the easy way out and lighten the load.