Movies: The Conspirator | Arts & Culture

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Movies: The Conspirator
Arts & Culture
Movies:  The Conspirator

All the elements are here for a gripping drama: a presidential assassination, a dark conspiracy, a military tribunal.  So why does this earnest historical recreation of the post-Civil War era seem so flat? 

“The Conspirator” centers around the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), whose Washington boarding house was the meeting place of John Wilkes Booth and his band of Confederate sympathizers in the weeks leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and simultaneous attempts on the lives of the Vice President and Secretary of State.   

At the center of this story is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero chosen by the head of his law firm (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Surratt at her military trial.  It quickly becomes clear to Aiken that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) wants Surratt to give up the whereabouts of her son John -- one of the Booth conspirators --  in return for her life.  (Stanton insists that the real reason he is prosecuting Mary Surratt is to save the nation from any further discord.) 

Absent the actual conspirator, Aiken must try to defend a woman who may or may not have played a role in the assassination plot.  But the cards are stacked high against him.   The head of the military tribunal (Colm Meaney) consistently rules against his motions to discredit the evidence against Surratt, and Aiken soon finds himself ostracized by his own society.  

In the final moments of the trial, he turns to the defendant’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) to  save her mother by implicating her own brother. 

Working from a script by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, director Robert Redford has done his best to recreate the dimly-lit atmosphere of 19th Century America -- with an eye toward post-911 events as well.  The hooded prisoners evoke more recent images of Abu Ghraib, the earnest discussions of military versus civilian justice sound very much like today’s debates over terrorist trials.

Okay, so here we have a historical courtroom drama with issues that still resonate today.  And yet, and yet... it all comes off like one of those stilted recreations at Colonial Williamsburg.   

I can’t fault Production Designer Kalina Ivanov, who does a nice job of 19th Century restoration, or the city of Savannah, Georgia, which fills in for Washington, DC.  Cinematographer Newtron Thomas Sigel does his best with the low lights of kerosene lanterns and dust motes in the air.

No, the blame lies squarely with Robert Redford, who never seems to infuse this powerful bit of American history with actual flesh and blood.  He may have wanted to make a modern statement about terrorism, military tribunals and the like, but he never draws believable performances from his principal actors, McAvoy and Wright.  Sure, they play their parts but they never give their characters the kind of life that would make us truly care about their fates.  The best performance in this movie comes from a second-rank player, Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Surratt’s tormented daughter.

“The Conspirator” is rated PG-13 for some historical violence.  I give it a C.


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