The Conspirator’s uneven blend of history and docudrama.
The Conspirator has a powerful story to tell and an impressive array of character actors to portray the gallery of historical figures involved in it. Plus, its political and historical reverberations give it a certain contemporary urgency as well. Unfortunately, the onscreen results are more frustrating than fascinating.
The story focuses on the Civil War-era trial of Mary Surratt, a Washington, D.C., resident and Southern sympathizer accused of participating in John Wilkes Booth’s plot to assassinate President Lincoln. The uncertainties of the case and the furious rush to judgment in a military court get particular attention even as the script (by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein) tries to gin up the personal dramas of Surratt (Robin Wright), her family, and the Union officer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) who is assigned to defend her in the ostensibly summary military tribunal.
What ensues is a muddled kind of docudrama, a distillation of the historical record peppered with elements of courtroom drama, historical romance and political allegory. Aiken’s moral and professional awakening, the possibility of a miscarriage of justice, the ambiguity of Surratt’s character, tyranny in the name of liberty and national unity and (by implication) parallels with the cultural and national crises of 9/11—all these are part of the not-entirely coherent thematic mix.
Robert Redford’s resolutely somber direction of the proceedings underlines the gravity of all this, but does little to give the film anything like an abidingly coherent vision. An issue-oriented drama is one thing, but a hot-button social drama that pushes its audience around with such pedantic earnestness is quite another. The history (and the cast) deserve better as well.
Wright is very good, as is Tom Wilkinson in the role of the lawyer/senator who turns the case over to Aiken. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), the story’s Dick Cheney-like figure, is crucial to the tale but never really developed as a character.