Rialto Film Distribution
Directed by Robert Redford and chronicling the military trial of those accused of involvement in the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln, The Conspirator is the first feature by The American Film Company which has, as one of its guiding principles, accuracy in the depiction of events pertaining to American history.
Now I'm all for accuracy, but film should also be entertaining something, it would seem, the American Film Company, screenwriter James D. Solomon and even Redford, have forgotten in their efforts to be factual. For most of its running time, The Conspirator is a dry history lesson, handsomely mounted but only seizing upon the inherently dramatic potential of its story in the third act.
That's when it seems for certain that the case put forward by Civil War hero and attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) in defense of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman accused of conspiring in the President's murder (meetings presided over by John Wilkes Booth were held in her boarding house), will fail and she will go to the gallows.
Having only taken on the case as a favour to his mentor, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and not entirely convinced of his client's innocence (Surratt does little to help in her own defence, refusing to implicate her son, a known associate of Booth), Aiken soon comes to the realisation that the trial is merely a formality, a pretence of justice. The American public demands vengeance and the prosecution (Danny Huston), under orders from the Secretary of Defence, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), aims to see that they get it.
Known Democrat Robert Redford makes all too clear the connections between the Mary Surratt trial (conducted in a military court and not a public one where she would have been judged by a jury of her peers) and the post-9-11 hysteria under the Bush administration; even Surratt and her fellow accused are treated in a manner that intentionally recalls images from Guantanamo Bay. But whether The Conspirator is historically accurate or left-leaning revisionism I'll leave to the historians (and Americans) to debate.
My main issue with the film is its (for the most part) lack of drama, no matter how good McAvoy, as the crusading lawyer, and Wright, as the stoic Surratt, are. Their scenes together, in the jail and the courtroom, are the only real time the action sparks to life, while the other performances of the well known cast divide between solid (Wilkinson, and Evan Rachel Wood as Surratt's daughter) and distracting (Kline, Justin Long as one of Aiken's fellow soldiers, and Alexis Bledel who, as Aiken's love interest, seems more like an after thought than a nod to historical accuracy).
Ultimately The Conspirator succeeds more as a history lesson than as a film; it's informative but lacking in the necessary dramatic thrust needed to fully engage beyond those with an interest in the subject matter. Perhaps if Redford had attempted to emulate his 1994 film Quiz Show, which entertainingly detailed the television quiz show scandal of the 1950s, history would have come to life rather than merely being depicted.