Redford displays a sense of history in unveiling a 19th Century trial with current relevance.
The American Film Company/ Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed By: Robert Redford
Written By: James D. Solomon
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel
Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 4/12/11
Opens: April 15, 2011
There's little doubt where Robert Redford, who directs "The Conspirator," stands on current politics. He's in favor of civilian trials of the people captured and imprisoned in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay. We can deduce this by seeing his latest movie as allegorical. The alleged conspirator in the film researched and scripted by James D. Solomon is a civilian, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), 42-year-old Roman Catholic who ran a boardinghouse at which men met to plot the kidnapping of President Abraham Lincoln. She is a widow trying to eke out a living by taking in boarders and, if we trust her testimony, she had no idea that her guests or her son, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), were involved in a nefarious conspiracy. It's easy enough for us in the twenty-first century to look back at the trial and become disgusted with the prejudicial actions of the military court, determined to find her guilty though by all rights they should not have even had jurisdiction over the case. But these were tough times, the war between the states had just wound down, and folks up North were eager for revenge against anyone even suspected of harboring evil thoughts and committing dastardly deeds against not only our president, but Vice President Andrew Johnson and some members of the cabinet. To paraphrase what the Roman statesman Cicero once said, when you're at war the law goes out the window.
Redford directs "The Conspirator" in a solid, traditional manner, though to remind us that we're in the Nineteenth Century it's not enough to show that nobody was looking at a BlackBerry or looking up the latest Facebook pages. Thus the background is kept in soft focus by Newton Thomas Sigel who stands behind the lens in lovely and historic Savannah, Georgia, filming most of the scenes in the rickety courtroom.
The film opens at Ford's Theater in the nation's capital. We watch John Wilkes Booth sneaking about, emerging at the back door of the box seat in which the president is sitting to enjoy a comedy. (One wonders how the country's chief executive is guarded by just a single person who is reading a book while the play is performed, particularly considering that a large segment of the U.S. hated Mr. Lincoln.) Booth makes his well-known jump to the floor, injuring his leg and shouting sic temper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants), is tracked down to a barn, where soldiers set fire to the building, shoot Booth dead, and capture others. Some conspirators are ultimately found guilty and hanged but the film deals with the conflict between Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union soldier who shuns recruitment to the War Department under Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) in favor of continuing his law practice, and Joseph Hult (Danny Huston, the prosecutor, over the fate of Mary Surratt. While Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has the experience and is determined that Surratt have every chance to defend herself, he turns the job to Aiken, his young colleague because Johnson is a southerner, less likely to have credibility with a military tribunal under General David Hunter (Colm Meaney). (History buffs and those motivated to follow up a screening of the film with a look at details will note that while Aiken fought for the Union, he had enough sympathies for the other side to consider joining with the Confederates. Maryland, though southern, was not one of the secessionist states.)
The courtroom scene, which forms the bulk of the film, bears comparison with similar scenes in the halls of justice such as Herman Wouk's play "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," though the outcome of the Surratt trial seems obvious given the prejudices of the War Secretary and the military commission, determined to give the American public a whiff of strong actions taken against rebels. Aiken plays the role of a man who had never before defended anyone in a capital case, a hesitant, callow attorney who frequently raises his voice "The prosecution will stop at nothing!" while the far more experienced prosecutor remains confident, relaxed, certain of the victory that will be his. There is little particularly riveting about McAvoy's performance-he did better in roles more suited such as Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in Kevin Macdonald's "The Last King of Scotland," as personal physician imported from Scotland by Uganda's dictator Idi Amin. He is overshadowed by a powerful job from Robin Wright, as a woman who at one point goes on a hunger strike, who professes her innocence throughout, and protests even as her lawyer tries to implicate her son, who had escaped to Egypt, as the true conspirator. Surratt's daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), is tentative at first about providing the defense with evidence that would implicate her undoubtedly guilty brother, Mary Surratt consistently objects to legal action that would implicate her son, John. Yet Mary is no martyr: she is fearful of the gallows, and though she ascends the wooden platform with dignity, history indicates that she wept profusely. This may not be Wright's movie, but she is character to watch as she transcends the material, elevating a traditional legal battle into an epic tale.
Rated PG-13. 122 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online