A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2011


2011, PG-13, 122 mins.

James McAvoy: Frederick Aiken / Robin Wright: Mary Surratt / Kevin Kline: Edwin M. Stanton / Evan Rachel Wood: Anna Surratt / Tom Wilkinson: Reverdy Johnson / Alexis Bledel: Sarah / Danny Huston: Joseph Holt / Colm Meaney: Gen. Hunter / Toby Kebbell: John Wilkes Booth / Johnny Simmons: John Surratt

Directed by Robert Redford / Written by James Solomon

Robert Redford, now 75, has been one of the few actors that have successfully segued into a solid filmmaking career.  He has starred in and directed some of the most memorable films of our times.

Regrettably, THE CONSPIRATOR is not one of them.  It tells a worthwhile and potentially intriguing story of Mary Surratt, the only female co-conspirator that was charged in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the first women ever executed by the Federal Government.  This is endlessly compelling material here, which is made all the more disconcerting for how the usually poised and assured Redford seems to fumble the ball with his somewhat half-hearted and frustratingly mannered approach here.   

The problem with the film is that Redford and first-time screenwriter James Solomon use the Surratt trial as an oftentimes not-so-subtle metaphor for the ways the modern day U.S. government has abused power in the post-9/11 world.  The film also wishes to be a harsh criticism of the American military tribunals of Islamic terrorists.  I think that Redford’s political leanings here somewhat overshadow the real dramatic weight that the underlining story should have had: Instead of immersing us within the struggles of Surratt and her trial attorney, the political pontificating contained within and all of the film’s attempts at drawing parallels to the present feel desperately strained and forced.  At one point Surratt’s lawyer pleads with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “It’s not justice you're after, it’s revenge!”  Lines like that feel a bit too spot-on for my tastes. 

Superficially, the film does indeed reflect the sort of dicey, uncertain, and paranoid socio-political climate that most definitely occurred after the events of 9/11, even though a case can easily be made about the fundamental differences between a president being assassinated and a widespread terrorist attack on American soil.  Yet, America was a young country (as the film begins) in turmoil on April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth: the lustful need to bring the perpetrators to justice is intense, which is precisely why War Secretary Stanton (Kevin Kline) wants and wants quickly.  Three days after the assassination, boarding house owner Surratt (Robin Wright) and seven other men are arrested on charges of conspiracy to kill the president.  Surratt is certainly a figure that elicits easy suspicions: she is a southerner and a Confederate sympathizer, but does her political leanings make her an accessory and accomplice to murder?  Or is she simply a woman that had a fleeting acquaintance with the real conspirators that were boarding with her? 

Stanton certainly seems to lean towards Surratt’s quilt as he rushes her to a military court in hopes of getting a very easy and swift conviction.  The evidence against her is definitely strong: she owned and operated the boarding house where Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others, including her own son John (Johnny Simmons) met to plan the assassination.  Yet, does her association to these men instantly mean that she was in on it?  Furthermore, would a military tribunal ever afford her the opportunity of a fair and balanced trial?  Despite all obstacles, a former Union war hero and attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) begrudgingly takes her case, mostly at the insistence of Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).  Initially, Aiken seems to believe that Surratt is guilty and thinks he’s taking on a losing case, but the more time he spends with Surratt and more he sees his dutiful efforts being stymied in the tribunal by political forces that want quick resolution, the more Aiken changes his prerogative. 

Redford has always been known as a great director of actors, and THE CONSPIRATOR has – in you exclude a few casting hiccups (Justin Long and Alexis Bledel…wait, what?!) – a fine assortment of great character performers, like the aforementioned Wilkinson and Kline, not to mention Colm Meaney and Danny Huston, the latter that plays prosecutor Joseph Holt with a Hustonian undercurrent of slimy, duplicitous menace.   The two performers in particular that stand out, though, are McAvoy and Wright, who manage to keep the film afloat even in its sea of distracting political sermonizing and trite and stilted dialogue.  McAvoy lends a strong moral center to the film and Wright has the trickiest role playing Surratt as a stoic and headstrong (but potentially guilty) woman placed in an indescribable situation.   

The arc of the film is also interesting in the sense that Aiken finds himself trying to defend a woman that he harbors his own deep qualms about, not to mention that she was a sympathizer for a cause that he found morally repugnant.  Beyond that, he also becomes embroiled in a case that is essentially unwinnable, especially when it is presided over by a military tribunal that wants to use Surratt as an easy scapegoat target to calm the public’s apprehension about finding the conspirators.    On a positive, THE CONSPIRATOR never really spells out to audiences Surratt’s real end game in all of this: her loyalties are never truly revealed. 

Again, there are the makings here of a great political/historical/court room drama, but too much of THE CONSPIRATOR lacks a fiery punch and panache.  Despite the solid cast and the lush and handsomely mounted production (Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography in particular bathes the screen with a sun-drenched, mist and fog soaked, and sepia-tinted scheme that gives the period look a sense of immediacy), THE CONSPIRATOR sort of feels like a direct-to-TV, B-grade telefilm instead of an upper tier thoroughbred motion picture.   When the film is not struggling to find a tone to settle in, it seems to come off as dramatically and emotionally lacking:  I simply found it hard to really become invested in the material and it certainly did not engage me as I was expecting.  Redford’s direction is middling at best; his calculated approach here lacks passion and makes the film feel more leisurely than it should have been.   

The film, to be sure, has high ideals and a really fascinating story to tell, but its slow-as-molasses tempo makes the overall story a tedious and inert bore at two-plus hours.  That, and, yes, the way THE CONSPIRATOR methodically goes out of its way to be a 9/11 parable is all kinds of distracting, which has the unintended side-effect of betraying the historical significance of its story and the troublesome plight of Surratt and her attorney to secure a reasonable legal defense.  Redford’s film definitely has something significant to say about the expanded powers of the U.S. government in times of great crisis and hysteria, but comparing Suratt’s predicament to those of the 9/11 perpetrators is a real stretch.   

Lastly, what of Surratt’s guilt or lack thereof?  Did she deserve to hang, especially after being found guilty in a tribunal that could be aptly labeled as a farce?  Maybe the point the film was trying to make was that she was most likely guilty, but that the legal journey towards discovering her guilt was unjust.   Those are crucial and weighty notions to ponder; I just wished that THE CONSPIRATOR had dealt with them in a more gratifying manner. 

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