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TORONTO — The American Film Co., which seeks to make movies drawn from American history, hits a jackpot of sorts with its first film. The producers came up with a real who-knew? — one of those stories that freshman history never uncovered — and they landed Robert Redford to direct a starry cast. Even so, once the dry dust of history gets whisked away, The Conspirator feels like a television movie. Perhaps because a large part of the story — centering on the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln — takes place in a courtroom, there’s lots of talk and not much action.
So the film, seeking a distributor here, is very much a tough sell. It’s an admirable film, mixing history few people know with several real-life personalities well worth knowing. Unfortunately, viewers for such fare are older and less prone to line up on a first weekend. A distributor will need to roll this film out incrementally, looking for feature stories, reviews and word-of-mouth to entice history buffs and the curious into adult venues.
Redford does a good job in developing the drama and making one of the least sympathetic women in American history into something of a heroine. But the film largely rests on a character played with considerable emotional energy by James McAvoy, Union veteran and war hero Frederick Aiken, who as a new lawyer defended Mary Surratt, one of four individuals charged in the conspiracy after John Wilkes Booth was shot trying to escape arrest.
Screenwriter James Solomon dug into court transcripts and deeper still into this chapter in American history to expose another kind of conspiracy: The portrait he paints is of panicky Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (an authoritarian Kevin Kline), who practically runs the government in the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination. Stanton wants a quick trial and execution of the four conspirators to get the whole thing over with and, literally, buried, all in the name of the nation’s good.
The problem is that the government is missing its fourth conspirator, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), who escapes a massive manhunt. (The film alleges elements within the Catholic Church hid him.) So instead, it puts his mother, Mary (Robin Wright), on trial, figuring this will flush him out.
So her defense counsel, Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), insists that his new associate, Frederick, defend her, seeing that her only chance lies in being repped by a Union vet. But she is being tried in a military tribunal with generals handpicked to ensure a desired guilty verdict.
The movie boils down to the gradual transformation of Frederick’s character from one who scoffs at his client’s innocence to one who sees that whatever her innocence or guilt, he fought for a nation of laws and justice and this kangaroo court makes a mockery of both.
Other characters that come into play include Mary’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), Frederick’s increasingly distraught fiancee Sarah (Alexis Bledel), insidious prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston, born for the role) and two highly dubious prosecution witnesses (Jonathan Groff and Stephen Root).
Like “A Man for All Seasons,” or any movie about personal conscience, Conspirator concerns itself less with the historical conflict than the one inside its hero’s heart. He shares his (legal) opponent’s contempt for the rebels and conspirators, but is Mary Surratt — whose guilt rests on the flimsy fact that the conspirators met at her Washington boardinghouse — truly one of them?
The film never quite figures that out but strongly suggests this mother would go to any length to protect her son. Meanwhile, Frederick sees political expediency at the cost of injustice as being a foolhardy way to bind the Union back together.
McAvoy brilliantly plays a man trapped in the web of his own conscience. He looks to escape, but every avenue closes abruptly. He will have to learn to live with himself then because everyone else in his life drifts away.
Wright plays an enigma, but her acting is anything but. Her Mary is convinced of the rightness in her non-cooperation in her own defense and sustains herself through faith and convictions.
Production values are sharp, with an arresting design that brings the District of Columbia circa 1865 to brilliant life with filming in Savannah, Ga., where much of the era’s federal architecture survives. Newton Thomas Sigel’s moody and drained cinematography and Kalina Ivanov’s fastidiously researched production design go hand in glove with Louise Frogley’s meticulous period costumes. Some moviegoers will be shocked to see that D.C. was more of a rural, muddy town than a national capital in those days.
Conspirator is never less than thought-provoking and illuminating. It’s an answer to those who moan that they don’t make movies like they used to. But will those reluctant viewers embrace this new kind of old-fashioned history drama?
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