Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (Lionsgate), a courtroom drama about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, has no business being as entertaining as it is. Less a movie than an extended re-enactment from a History Channel documentary, the movie is stagey, preachy, and long on exposition. It’s easy to imagine the bulleted list of questions to be handed out afterwards for high-school civics students to ponder: What is a writ of habeas corpus? But once you accustom yourself to this film’s unhurried rhythm and old-fashioned Hollywood stolidity, The Conspirator is not without its pleasures—chief among them Robin Wright’s quietly fierce performance as Mary Surratt, the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators, who was charged with complicity in their plot to kill the president.
The film begins on a Civil War battleground where, amid horrific carnage, a wounded Union soldier, Capt. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) struggles to keep his even more seriously injured comrade Nicholas (Justin Long) from slipping toward death. As it turns out, both men survive the war, and a few years later Aiken is a novice attorney in the employ of Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), with Nicholas as his roué drinking partner. As they carouse at a men’s club one April night in 1865, word comes that the president has been shot. (Though we only glimpse Lincoln briefly and from a distance, the shooting at Ford’s Theatre is recreated as it appeared in contemporary accounts, right down to Booth’s leap onto the stage, the resulting broken leg, and his cry of “Sic semper tyrannis—the South is avenged!”)
While the nation mourns (a development conveyed by touchingly old-school closeups of newspaper headlines reading “The Nation Mourns”), Aiken finds that his boss has assigned him the unenviable task of defending Mary Surratt, a widow who ran the boarding house where the conspirators gathered to hatch their plot. Worse, Surratt will be tried before a specially convened wartime tribunal led by a general (Colm Meaney) who seems to be making up the rules of the court as he goes along. It appears that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) has decided that symbolic punishment must be meted out for Lincoln’s death, and if the runaway conspirator John Surratt (Johnny Simmons) can’t be found and executed, his mother will have to do.
It’s a tossup whether the parallels Redford draws to the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror are more painful for their obviousness or for their lateness. But I found myself forgiving The Conspirator for its clumsy stabs at ideological relevance, because the story—the actual facts of what happened to Mary Surratt, and to the right to trial by jury—was so damn interesting. If you’re up enough on Civil War history to know the facts of the Surratt trial already, the last one-third of The Conspirator may feel pokey, but my ignorance of Surratt’s fate had me on the edge of my seat.
Actors who direct like to think of themselves as “actors’ directors,” but Redford’s coaching of his cast seems uneven, with different actors coming at the project from different angles: Kevin Kline’s hammy villain doesn’t belong on the same screen as McAvoy’s understated hero, and Justin Long, bless his heart, should never attempt a period film again—even in full Union regalia, he looks like he should be carrying a neoprene backpack. Robin Wright, an actress who keeps getting better and more beautiful with age, brings a mysterious gravity to the widow Surratt, whose allegiances and motivations remain shrouded in mystery right up till the end.
As for McAvoy, he manages to invest his potentially dull Dudley Do-Right character with mischief and quicksilver intelligence. But between The Last King of Scotland, Wanted, The Last Station, and Atonement, he’s in danger of becoming typecast as the nice handsome guy to whom other people do awful things. For his next project, he should seek out a script in which good and evil aren’t so easy to tell apart, where heroism can coexist with ambiguous or even base motivations. If he wants to hold out for a role like that, McAvoy might want to stop taking Robert Redford’s calls.