A battle-scarred lawyer starts to wonder what he was fighting for when he faces a military court bent on revenge and a nation willing to forget the Constitution to have that revenge in "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's courtroom drama about the Lincoln assassination.
Redford worked with a fraction of his normal budget on this wonderfully cast and carefully shot period piece that focuses on Mary Surratt, one of the people accused of conspiring to murder President Lincoln.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, an officer just recovered from combat, a man whose chief hope is to restart his life and marry the girl who waited for him while he fought for the Union.
But one night of terror – the murder of the president, the attempted murder of the secretary of state – interrupts that. The movie vividly recreates those attacks and the capture of the assassins.
As the capital quakes with shock, the roundup of those who could be found connected in any way to the plot began. The secretary of war, Edward Stanton (Kevin Kline, in a fine fury), fumes “Damn the rebels, damn them all to hell,” and sets up a military court to try those accused, among them Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met.
“A military trial of civilians is an atrocity,” Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, perfect) declares. It’s a regular Inquisition. He shames Aiken into joining the cause.
Aiken is a reluctant defense attorney, inexperienced in such trials. And few lawyers of the day would have been prepared to face a kangaroo court of the sort Stanton assembled to railroad the accused to the gallows. They’re all Union Army officers (Colm Meaney is the meany in charge). They seem hell-bent on dispensing with considering evidence. Surratt’s son was involved and has fled the country. Her house is where the conspirators met. And she’s a Southerner. Guilty!
Wright plays Surratt as a defiant but resigned Catholic woman who won’t give away her son’s whereabouts, no matter what conditions she is imprisoned under and no matter what fate awaits her. Redford and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who shot “Leap Year” in a lovely, soggy Irish green, give the film sepia-accented scenes in the court, hazy natural light putting witnesses, judges and the gallery in alternating bright light or dusty shadow.
It doesn’t quite come off as the allegory for our times Redford intended (he’s grown pretty preachy in his later years). But “The Conspirator” makes a fine addition to his résumé. It can’t have escaped him that the great John Ford also tackled this subject with his movie about the doctor who unknowingly set the assassin Booth’s broken leg – “The Prisoner of Shark Island.” “The Conspirator” may not be as emotionally compelling as Ford’s work, but it’s every bit as meticulously crafted.
*** 1/2 *
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Robert Redford
Running time: 2:03
Rating: PG-13; violent content