The Conspirator ✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Gather ’round, kids. Professor Redford has something to say. It’s about the Constitution and how it must be protected, particularly in times of strife, such as 9/11 and the resultant invasion of Iraq and imprisonment and torture of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. He wants you to know that bending the letter of the law for the sake of swift justice and national security is a worrisome thing. It diminishes us as a people, as a country.
Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” ‒ a talking-heads lecture that seldom catches fire as compelling drama or historical narrative ‒ opens during the Civil War and quickly flashes forward to April 14, 1865, the night John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre and his co-conspirators attempted to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Though he follows the pursuit and capture of seven suspects — Booth is cornered and killed in a Virginia barn ‒ Redford, working from a script by James D. Solomon, is concerned mainly with Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran the boarding house where Booth, her son John and other Confederate agents congregated. Guilty by association, primarily because her son has fled to Canada, Surratt is placed before a military tribunal and tried as a co-conspirator. The recalcitrant Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), demands justice ‒ “swift and firm” to ensure the peace.
Assigned to represent Surratt is former Attorney General Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who, because of his southern ties, cedes the job to a young Yankee lawyer/war hero named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy of “Atonement”). Aiken, caught up in the anti-South fervor and convinced of Mary Surratt’s guilt, asks to be relieved of the duty, lest he be branded “a traitor” to the Union cause.
Johnson, who argues that Surratt as a civilian must be tried by a jury of her peers, issues Aiken a challenge: “If you can prove that she’s guilty, you can take yourself off the case.”
Aiken has little trouble disliking his client: She is surly and confoundedly proud and, by way of defense, parrots the line “Those men were customers, nothing more.” Making matters worse, as a loving mother, she refuses to condemn her son or provide information as to his whereabouts.
It is only when it becomes clear that Surratt is being railroaded by the government prosecutor (Danny Huston), who troops out paid “witnesses,” that Aiken’s hackles are raised and he begins to take an interest in a case that has already made him a pariah in Washington social circles. For Aiken, the question of Surratt’s guilt or innocence soon becomes immaterial: As an American citizen she is entitled to a fair trial, not the kangaroo court that Stanton has orchestrated.
To be sure, “The Conspirator” is a noble undertaking that carries a worthwhile and, yes, timely message. Dyed-in the-wool liberal Redford is to be congratulated for putting his money where his mouth is and for taking his strongest stance against the abuse of power since “The Candidate” and “”All the President’s Men,” both released in the ‘70s.
Unfortunately, for all the good intentions, this isn’t a very good movie. By that I mean it doesn’t move, it just sort of sits there, occasionally jostled awake by another impassioned speech about the unconstitutionality of it all. It doesn’t help that the street scenes (actually Savannah’s historic district) and interior groupings have the filtered, sepia-toned look of a History Channel production. And the performances by McAvoy and Wright, who has a wonderful rawboned look, feel stilted and self-important, as if the actors are fighting to breathe life into what is essentially a filmed civics lesson. Only Kline as Stanton is able to sink his teeth into his role, presumably because he had a living model in Dick Cheney.
I wonder if, in preparation, Redford returned to “Seven Days in May.” He should have. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 adaptation is the model for this type of enterprise, an inner-sanctum drama about an attempted military coup that transcends its constitutional-crisis trappings to work as a cracking good political thriller.
THE CONSPIRATOR ✮✮1/2 With Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline. Directed by Robert Redford; scripted by James D. Solomon. 123 min. PG-13 (for violence, profanity)