Review of Redford’s “The Conspirator”: A Gripping Historical Drama

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? The category – “4th Grade History.”
Q: Who shot President Abraham Lincoln?
A: John Wilkes Booth, of course.
OK, that was a lay-up. Fine…good for you. Now let’s play a little hardball.
Q: Who was the first woman to be executed by the United States government and for what offense?
Yes, I know it’s a two-part question, but it’s my game and I make the rules.

The answer is certainly not common knowledge – and not taught in any elementary textbook covering American history. But leave it tofilmmaker Robert Redford — who is certainly drawn to historical/political dramas — to tackle this notorious subject, which remains one of the most fascinating subplots in our country’s tumultuous history.

The horrifying news spread quickly across the country that was already in a state of turmoil and bereavement in the wake of the Civil War. The President had been shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC – and the very next morning (April 15, 1865), died from a shot to the head from a .44 caliber Derringer at the hands of Mr. Booth. The unforgiving government needed to act – and quickly – to satisfy the country’s thirst for revenge into this heinous act. As Booth went on the lam, seven men and one woman were arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State. That woman was Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house where Booth and his men (which included Surratt’s son, John) would meet and allegedly plan. Her trial, outlandishly held in front of a military tribunal rather than in the confines of a civil court, is at the heart of Mr. Redford’s gripping courtroom drama, The Conspirator.

Defending Mary Surratt (a stone-faced Robin Wright) is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an officer who is just covering from combat while he fought for the union. He wants no part of this case, nor does he allow himself to believe in Surratt’s possible innocence for a minute. However, it is Senator Reverdy Johnson (the always magnetic Tom Wilkinson) who reminds him of the constitutional rights given to our citizens and thus persuades him into taking the case, albeit with extreme reluctance. His opposition? Just about the entire United States government, led by the mighty Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), Lincoln’s Secretary of War whose actions and demeanor eerily resemble one Dick Cheney in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. He wants revenge – at any cost, no matter that there may be no tangible proof that Ms. Surratt had anything to do with conspiring against the president. In addition, the inexperienced Aiken must try his case in front of a panel of Union Army officers (headed by Colm Meaney) who seem more eager in declaring the defendant’s guilt than allowing any evidence that may in fact by beneficial to her. Danny Huston, always cast as the heavy, plays the shrewd prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt.

The all-star cast, for the most part, turns in some splendid performances. McAvoy is quickly becoming one of the industry’s strongest (young) leading men – and here, he holds the film together in impressive fashion. Not only do we see him wrestle with his feelings concerning his defendant, but his own domestic issues as well — mainly, wanting to begin his life anew and marry the girl (Alexis Bledel) who waited for him while he was off fighting in the war. Kevin Kline lights up the screen as always – and it is great to see him take on such a ruthless character. As Mary Surratt, Wright is stoic and valiant – but I wish we were able to see a bit more emotion from this woman who is caught in such a helpless situation. She rarely, if ever, lets her guard down and we never get to see what the character is feeling deep down. She seems too detached, too apathetic. The wonderful character actor Stephen Root has a small turn as a key witness for the prosecution. Root makes the very most of his screen time, as he lies and fumbles his way on the witness stand. The one terrible misfire in casting here is comedic actor Justin Long who plays Aiken’s close friend and injured Civil War soldier. Here, Long looks completely out of place – like a square peg in a round hole.

The overall look of The Conspirator is strikingly authentic. It is very clear that much research went into all details — from the sinister looking conspirator hoods to the 19th century handcuffs to the small accessories on the aristocracy – all providing us with a genuine sense of the time. Louise Frogley’s costumes are spot on and Melissa M. Levander’s production design provides a true sense of time and place – creating a long ago Washington DC from their shooting locales in Savannah, Georgia. Redford always seems to be very aware of lighting  – and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography works from a vast palette of rich colors.

The Conspirator is the debut film of The American Film Company whose mission is to produce movies about true events from our nation’s past. In teaming up with the studio, Redford was forced to work on a much smaller, more modest budget than he had become accustomed to. Not that you could tell. The grandeur is still clearly up on the screen — and though a historical drama, the film is certainly entertaining and hopefully will appeal to a wider, more commercial audience. The courtroom scenes are quite intense and the intimate scenes between McAvoy and Wright are gripping. And though the film never gets preachy or overly political in any way, what comes across loud and clear is that we are witnessing the unfortunate case of one woman being tried in what proved to be a mockery of the judicial system. Panic, fear and vengeance prevailed over reason and the rights of a human being who may or may not have been guilty. For those familiar with Redford’s work in front of and behind the camera, you can see why he may have been easily drawn into this subject matter – it is an American story that raises many questions about the ideals on which this country was founded. It illustrates heroism and corruption at the highest of levels – and though it never reaches the depths I was hoping it would go to, The Conspirator is certainly worth seeing — and yes, an important, provocative film.

RATING:  
Director:   Robert Redford
Year:         2011

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