Apr 232011

There is so much that could have gone right for The Conspirator that it seems such a waste that it doesn’t amount to more than it does. It’s a complicated and rich story of Civil War vengeance versus justice with very high stakes on the line.

The Conspirator. Directed by Robert Redford. The cast includes James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, and Kevin Kline.

By Sarah Sanders.

Robin Wright (Mary Surratt) and James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken) fight the good fight in The CONSPIRATOR

The Conspirator could have been amazing, the kind of film that raises so many questions that people talk about it for years. Instead, the film engages its brutal Americana with all the enthusiasm of a tired, old, history lecturer in the form of the stodgy, lackluster direction by Robert Redford.

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln days after the Union victory over the Confederacy, the government quickly gathers a military tribunal to punish the conspiracy of assassins, thus reassuring the nation that order has been restored. Among the alleged plotters is one woman, Mary Surratt (Wright). A dedicated mother, Surratt claims she’s innocent yet stands trial for her involvement with John Wilkes Booth and the others who often gathered at her boarding house to secretly plot against the government.

With revenge firmly in mind, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Huston) heads up her prosecution while War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kline) stocks the courtroom with Union generals as judges. No one will take on Surratt’s obviously futile defense except a young lawyer named Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), who fought as a captain in the Union Army.

The government denies Surratt the opportunity to present her case, bringing in hordes of turned witnesses to stand against her. Regardless of how hard Aiken tries, each witness condemns Surratt, who appears to be only protecting her son, John, who fled capture after the assassination. But the government would rather see her hang than guarantee a fair and just court.

There is so much that could have gone right for The Conspirator that it seems such a waste that it doesn’t amount to more than it does. It’s a complicated and rich story of vengeance versus justice with very high stakes on the line: the rebuilding of country’s morale and sense of unity after the destruction of a civil war.

Robin Wright (Mary Surratt) faces her destiny in THE CONSPIRATOR

The film is heavily peppered with criticism of social and legal injustice, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a compelling movie. The film chugs along slowly, indulging in a lengthy setup before it enters the courtroom. McAvoy, Wright, and Huston all give solid performances, but none shine remarkably. Also, there is just so much didactic grandstanding that can take place within a single movie before it wears thin, even inside a courtroom turned into a circus.

Perhaps the strongest part of the film is the hard-won respect that grows between Surratt and Aiken as the trial carries on. It’s a complex relationship, what with Aiken struggling with warring loyalties between knowing Surratt is innocent and wanting to see the conspirators punished. McAvoy and Wright handle the relationship with a subtle but honest understanding that is quite touching, adding a much needed human element to a movie bogged down by having to underline the existential elusiveness of concepts such as justice and the nation.

Redford’s direction is lazy, perhaps paralyzed by the momentous historical responsibility of it all, when he should have applied a more flexible hand, making the film as taut and pointed as possible. There are powerful moments close to the end, when hope rears its ugly head only to be squashed by a harsh and manipulative reality, but overall The Conspirator comes off an intermittently entertaining but ultimately earnest seminar on crime and punishment, nineteenth-century American style.


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