Robert Redford is an estimable human being and a staunch supporter of the art of film, but he’s not one of the most exciting of directors of his day. The most stylish thing I ever saw him do was to switch from the flat to the widescreen format in The Horse Whisperer (1998) when the film moved from the confines of the east to the open spaces of the west. The most memorable thing I ever saw him do was the dance scene from the same film. Coming with that in mind to his latest film, The Conspirator, I wasn’t expecting cinematic fireworks. I was expecting solid craftsmanship, an overriding interest in characters, and a handful of striking compositions. Of course, being a Robert Redford movie, I also expected a liberal flavor in his take on the trial of Mary Suratt (Robin Wright), the woman charged with complicity as a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I got exactly what I expected. And in this case, that was a good thing.
The Conspirator is not a story that lends itself to flashiness. Indeed, at this point in time, Redford’s solid and rather old-fashioned courtroom drama is a bit daring in that it allows itself to be solid and old-fashioned. And nothing matters so much in it as the characterizations, which come off nicely with the Redford approach. It helps, of course, that the Redford name enabled him to assemble a first-rate cast, even for the smaller roles. The results are surprisingly transfixing drama over a little-known and little-discussed aspect of American history—and one where you aren’t left with the sense of Civil War hobbyists in crepe beards playing dress-up. (The memory of 2003’s Gods and Generals is painfully seared into my brain.)
The Conspirator is very careful in its construction, using prologue scene on a Civil War battlefield to establish its main character, lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), as a Union soldier of conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice. Here is an heroic man who we know will do what he perceives as the right thing at great personal cost. The film is similarly careful to give us the history-book depiction of the assassination of Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom) by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell, RocknRolla) right down to its “Sic semper tyrannis.” And it creates that defining moment in U.S. history more effectively and vividly than any movie has—capturing the horror of the event simply through cinematic craft and a glimpse of a blood-filled basin being carried from the dying president’s room.
It is after all this that film gets down to the thrust of its particular story about revenge-seeking Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) moving heaven and Earth not so much for justice as for punishing anyone who might even be suspected of having a hand in the plot to kill Lincoln. His supposed reasoning is to calm the North in its desire for justice, and to make an example of the conspirators to the South. In reality—at least as presented in the movie with its undeniable but unforced depiction of Stanton as the 19th century Dick Cheney—it feels more like personal vengeance than anything. In any case, though, punishment is the thing and Stanton intends to have it—in part by ignoring due process of the law and railroading civilians through a military court.
That brings us to the film’s central drama, which is the patently unfair trial of Mary Surratt and her defense by the initially unwilling Aiken, who is saddled with the thankless task by Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Both men know that the case is almost certainly unwinnable, and that if Aiken should somehow win it, it will be a bitter victory that will set most of Washington against him. Much of the drama here involves Aiken’s growing conviction that Mary Surratt actually did not know of the plan to assassinate Lincoln, but it also involves his coming to understand the basic violation of her rights in being “tried” in this matter. For those who don’t know the history, I’ll leave it at that as concerns Surratt’s fate, but I do recommend you see this often powerful film. Rated PG-13 for some violent content.