The Conspirator (James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson) – Robert Redford has been in a slump. Perhaps it is because he isn’t working much these days as an actor. Or is it his devotion to the film festival, Sundance, that he founded and nurtures? It could be his insistence on bringing his politics to the big screen in bombs like Lions for Lambs. But this time, Redford opens a wound in American history – the Lincoln assassination – and presents us with a gift. It is a story few have heard about. It is the opposite of a back-story; it’s the front story of what happened after the then controversial and now beloved President is killed in 1865.
John Wilkes Booth was no Lee Harvey Oswald. He neither acted alone (did Oswald?) nor committed his crime from behind cover. He did it right in the theater, addressed the audience, and ran for his life. Under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (beautifully portrayed by veteran and Oscar winner Kevin Kline), the Army searches for Booth and his accomplices. They get them all except one, a somewhat reluctant John Surratt, whose mother, Mary, owned the boarding house where the actor and the conspirators hatched their plot. That plot first involved kidnapping Lincoln, we find out, but ultimately led to the assassination. Booth is killed by the troops while hiding in a barn and the rest face trial. So does Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright). Was she as ignorant to the plot as she claims? Is she just protecting her son? Will she hang like the conspirators? In her case, she has a lawyer, first in the person of a southern senator from Maryland, Reverdy Johnson (played by twice Oscar nominated Tom Wilkinson), then later by his protégé, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Aiken is the heart of the story. He is a decorated Union officer who returns to the practice of law after being wounded. A hero, he inherits an unwinnable case and becomes the target of derision. How dare he defend a southern conspirator who helped kill Lincoln.
The film has depth, surprises, and angst. What it lacks is heart and spirit. At its core, it is a courtroom drama played out in a military court, not a civilian one. I suppose there are parallels to today’s Iraqi prisoners of war for some to challenge Redford’s motives for producing this historical drama. But Wright’s Mary Surratt isn’t completely a sympathetic character. She was either oblivious or a sympathizer. And the same holds for her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood, whose portrayal is a bit too predictable). Finally, I was befuddled by the casting of Justin Long (he, the Mac guy and comedic actor) as a fellow soldier and friend of Aiken’s. When he is on screen, I was totally distracted. What Redford saw in him is beyond me; does he have pictures of him with Charlie Sheen or something?
I actually enjoyed the movie a great deal, particularly because it was history about an event I thought I knew quite a bit about. The casting and acting (sans Long) are first-rate. And the story moved fast enough to keep me engaged.