2011, PG-13, 121 min. Directed by Robert Redford. Starring Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Norman Reedus, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell, Stephen Root.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 15, 2011
A little-known chapter of American history is examined in The Conspirator and scrutinized for its relevance to contemporary national issues. Handled with the patient deliberateness that is one of the hallmarks of Redford’s directing career, The Conspirator illuminates historical events, if only by the sepia-toned gas lamps of mid-19th century America. The film is devoted to the trial of Mary Surratt (Wright), the owner of the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, met frequently with his confederates to plan their actions. Among the conspirators was Surratt’s son John, who conveniently fled the country shortly before the assassination. In the aftermath, Surratt was imprisoned, in addition to seven male suspects, and their cases were tried in a military tribunal rather than a civil court. Was it possible that Surratt knew nothing of the conspiracy even though it was planned under her roof? Does a mother’s instinct to protect her son override any patriotic duties? Can the prisoners receive a fair trial in a military court where truth and justice appear to take a back seat to the higher purpose of assuaging the nation’s anxieties? Should any of this call to mind America’s post-9/11 fears and the quagmire faced by the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, you’ll be heading in the direction that Redford and screenwriter James Solomon (from a story by Solomon and Gregory Bernstein) planned. Getting there, however, can often be a talky slog, as this courtroom drama conducted in period garb and language becomes consumed by legal arguments. The viewers’ surrogate in this drama is Surratt’s defense counsel, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a Union war hero and aspiring attorney who is handed the case by his mentor Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson). Aiken is affronted at first, certain of the woman’s guilt, but as he investigates the case and comes to know her, shadows of doubt enter his mind. Furthermore, the travesty of the military tribunal, which is overseen from afar by the very powerful Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Kline), tramples roughshod over Aiken’s sense of justice. McAvoy ably lends some heart to the picture as the only character here capable of evolution in his understanding. Wright casts a memorable figure with a steely stoicism that depends on a stern and unflattering countenance uncommonly bold for a Hollywood leading lady. Apart from Long, who is badly miscast as one of Aiken’s buddies, the rest of the supporting cast sensitively execute their roles. Yet the film has little flash of life and energy. From the hurried opening that details the events on the night of the assassination to the arguments and counter-arguments of the courtroom procedural, The Conspirator rarely welcomes the viewer into its activities. Despite becoming witnesses to a hanging, we leave the theatre an enervated bunch.
Marjorie Baumgarten, April 26, 2013
Steve Davis, Nov. 9, 2007
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The Conspirator, Robert Redford, Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Norman Reedus, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell, Stephen Root