Even in the best of times, historical or period pictures are a tough sell. Despite the fact that the overwhelmingly popular reason people will give you for wanting to go to the movies is escapism, for some reason few people want to escape to World War I or Restoration England or ancient China; for every GLADIATOR or BRAVEHEART, there are five or six bombs like TROY or the infamous HEAVEN’S GATE. But as both an actor and a director, Robert Redford has spent his career defying those odds; from THE STING to THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER to A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, no other American actor I can name has accumulated nearly as rich a resume of critically and financially successful movies set in the past, and Redford’s own passion for American history has shone through not just in his film career, but in his conservation efforts and his work with academic historians of the Wild West.
So it made sense that the newly-formed American Film Company, established by Cubs owner Joe Ricketts with the express purpose of telling little-known stories about American history, approached Redford to direct their inaugural feature. And while THE CONSPIRATOR is not a success on the order of Redford’s other classics, I can’t think of anyone who could have done it better.
Every American grows up with the story of the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by the Confederate spy and actor John Wilkes Booth, but the movie zooms in on a side-incident that has largely been forgotten by history: the accusation and trial of Booth’s accomplices in the plot, especially Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of the Maryland boarding house where the plotters met and whose son numbered among the accused. Her son could not be found by the authorities, however, so Surratt herself – who refused to divulge information to help the Army and marshals capture him – was brought to trial as a co-conspirator herself.
We see all this through the eyes of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old lawyer and Union war hero who has been retained to serve as Surratt’s court-appointed defense counsel. Furious at the murder of his friend Lincoln and desirous to see the plotters swiftly and unambiguously sentenced and hanged, War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline in a brief but interesting role) has decided that the trial will be held by military tribunal instead of civilian court. With the deck stacked against him, the pensive and intelligent Aiken is reluctant to take on the job, and he isn’t encouraged by his client, a flinty, hard-bitten woman who undoubtedly hated the Union and refuses to say a word in her own defense – but who nonetheless may not have actually been involved in the plot.
Was Surratt guilty? What happened to her? A quick trip to Wikipedia can answer these things for the curious, but since this chapter of history is so little-known my lips will stay sealed. Suffice to say that Aiken, stuck with a job he doesn’t really want, does begin to warm up to his work as it becomes clear that the court isn’t particularly interested in the truth, and new evidence turns up that convinces him that his client may be innocent after all
As subject matter it’s interesting stuff, at least, if you’re like me and care about questions of Constitutional rights and boundaries. If not, I don’t know if the movie could make you care about something that seemingly abstract or not – certainly it’s an issue that bores many Americans even as it has dominated our headlines in recent years. Suffice to say that I think Redford, as a director, does what he can to make the material compelling in its own right as a mystery and a courtroom drama. He has to walk a fine line between historical fidelity and the dramatic necessities of telling a story on the big screen, and I commend his commitment to accuracy even as I think it makes the movie somewhat glacially-paced. Visually, though, he keeps things sprightly; despite the fact that this was not a big-budget production, his camera keeps finding fascinating details to focus on – the swirl of dust and cigar smoke in the trial room, the gas lights and candles, and the hard, careworn faces of people who have just lived through five years of what was, at that point, the most brutal war that had yet existed in history.
The script, as courtroom scripts are known to do, tends toward high-flown speeches and dramatic reveals, and is somewhat slow to build tension – during several speeches about the right to a fair trial, it’s hard not to escape the feeling that we’ve seen this sort of thing before, but the actors sell it. McAvoy is a likeable lead and we care about what happens to him even though his client is incredibly hard to root for; Robin Wright does a good job portraying a woman who has lost almost everything and now only cares about keeping her son alive. There are several other wonderful turns of casting, like the inimitable Tom Wilkinson as Aiken’s deceptively clever legal mentor, and Star Trek’s Colm Meaney as the general impatiently presiding over a tribunal he wants to be over with.
The result is a movie that takes some work on the part of the viewer to enjoy; you have to let it unfold at its own pace, laying out its argument gradually and thoroughly (much like a lawyer), giving it time to build the sense of urgency and excitement that finally powers the last, surprisingly gripping forty minutes. But it’s worth the work. Overall, I think I respected THE CONSPIRATOR a bit more than I enjoyed it – but I did enjoy it, and when the other alternatives at the box office are children’s movies and Tyler Perry’s latest, it stands out as an option for serious adult audiences.