The film, Redford’s first directorial effort since his 2007 political drama “Lions for Lambs,” revolves around a peripheral figure during the military trials of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This figure is Mary Surratt, a woman who was the owner of the boarding house the assassins were congregating at and also the mother of one of the conspirators. Surratt was tried for conspiring with the assassins.
The film, though, is not just about exploring a passage from history; it endeavors to criticize the American judiciary system and the meaning of the American Constitution. So yes, what you’ll be getting is mainly a courtroom drama that almost looks like any other US TV show revolving around lawyers, of the kind that we have been subjected to for the past decade.
Acted by Robin Wright (ex Mrs. Sean Penn) with a hint of pious integrity and a solemn glare, Mary Surratt is a Southern widow (in historical terms, a supporter of the Confederacy as opposed to the Yankees of the North) who becomes the scapegoat of the military (not civilian) trial, instigated by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who is more than ready to please the public by swiftly punishing all under suspicion.
But let us begin at the beginning, with the “mighty” young idealist hero who supposedly drives this story and is the beacon of integrity that tries to give all those old geezers a lesson or two about justice and fairness. This is young lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy – displaying all the swagger he’s got), who is not only a Union army veteran but also a man who, at first unwillingly, takes on Mary Surratt’s case as her public defender. His boss is Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), another Southerner who cajoles Aiken into taking the case, claiming that if he were to defend the woman himself, people would get the wrong idea. But Aiken is a Union veteran and he has values, so taking the case is a moral dilemma for him -- so we are told, because Aiken’s rapprochement towards Surratt seems somewhat artificial.
Yet the bright-eyed Aiken eventually takes up a specific mission, whether he believes the woman is guilty or not, to prove that conspiracy is a different matter. He must convince the court that Suratt should be tried in a civilian court, not by the military with overpowering prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston). Basically, he is fighting for the woman’s constitutional rights. In theory and practice, this is an indisputably right and just mission, but under Redford’s direction and James D. Solomon’s self-congratulatory screenplay, the events taking place in the softly lit courtroom, which looks more lovingly nostalgic than real, come off as incredibly stale and rigid. It is almost as if we are watching a very naïve American high-school theater production, where diction and display of education is more important than artistry, complexity or any hint of moral or historical questioning. One expects more when a big-time actor and director labor to make a massive cinematic production that in essence tells a story that could be a metaphor for our own times.
Despite each actor’s willingness to bring out a human side in their character (at which Wright is the most successful), the ensemble cast merely comes off as the kind of cardboard stereotypes that we might see on a visit to a museum of American history. McAvoy tries with all of his ability to portray the determination of a young warrior lawyer who is challenged by his predicament, but the screenplay does not allow Aiken’s character to truly express the difficulties of his position in what was a groundbreaking case. The worst that the film’s Aiken experiences is being kicked out of his gentlemen’s club -- who knows how many stones were thrown at him in reality.
“The Conspirator” surely gives us a different perspective on narrative and subject matter regarding historical drama, but its high ambitions of depicting alternative history and questioning the vicious public mechanisms of a nation at war are overshadowed by its utilization of mediocre elements of TV courtroom drama and its fascination with nostalgic fantasy. Some episodes of “Judge Judy” are more intriguing than this film.
Cast: Robin Wright,
James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood