"THE CONSPIRATOR" (2010/11) Review
Throughout Hollywood history, the topic of the American Civil War has proven to be a volatile mix in terms of box office and television ratings. Robert Redford's new drama about President Abraham Lincoln's assassination called "THE CONSPIRATOR" proved to be the case.
Directed by Redford and written by James D. Solomon, "THE CONSPIRATOR" told the story about Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken's efforts to prevent Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the Lincoln assassination during the spring and summer of 1865. Following the 16th President's death and near fatal attack upon Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Maryland-born boarding house owner and Confederate sympathizer named Mary Surratt becomes among those arrested in connection to the crime. The Federal government, under the authority of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt's guilt because of her son John's connections to assassin John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt's case was not helped by the fact that they had used her Washington D.C. boardinghouse as a meeting place; or that John managed to evade capture by the Federal authorities following the assassination.
Mrs. Surratt summoned a fellow native of Maryland, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson, to defend her before a military tribunal. But political pressure from Stanton and others forced Johnson to recruit Aiken to represent Mrs. Surratt at the tribunal. Unfortunately, the 27 year-old Aiken lacked any previous experience inside a courtroom. The young attorney's initial belief in Mrs. Surratt's guilt and reluctance to defend her disappeared, as he became aware of possible evidence that might exonerate his client and that she was being used as a hostage and bait to lure her son John to the authorities through foul means.
"THE CONSPIRATOR" proved to be one of those Civil War movies that failed to generate any interest at the box office. Most moviegoers ignored it. Many critics bashed it, claiming it was another of Robert Redford's thinly veiled metaphors on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I must be honest. I found this particular criticism worthy of some head scratching. Perhaps those critics had been right. But I must admit that I failed to see the metaphor. The manner in which the Army tribunal railroaded Mary Surratt to a date with a hangman's noose sadly struck me as a very common occurrence throughout history. The wealthy and the powerful have never been reluctant to destroy someone they deemed as a threat or a convenient scapegoat.
Superficially, Mary Surratt seemed like the type of person toward whom I would harbor any sympathy. The Maryland-born woman had been a Confederate sympathizer. I personally found her political and social beliefs abhorrent. Yet, by revealing the lies and manipulations that she had endured at the hands of the Army tribunal and Federal government, both Redford and screenwriter Solomon did an excellent job in igniting my sympathy. Mary Surratt's experiences also reminded me that they could happen to anyone - even today. The idea of so much power against one individual or a particular group is frightening to behold, regardless if that individual is a slave, a Confederate sympathizer under arrest or an early 21st century citizen.
Aside from displaying the dangers of absolute powers, "THE CONSPIRATOR" succeeded on two other points - at least for me. I found the movie's basic narrative well written and paced to a certain degree. Both Redford and Solomon had been wise to focus the movie's plot on Mrs. Surratt's case. They could have included the testimonies regarding the other conspirators, but that could have resulted in a great deal of chaos. However, the other defendants' participation in the conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration was utilized in an excellent sequence that conveyed the events surrounding President Lincoln's assassination, the attempt on William Seward's life, John Wilkes Booth's death and the subsequent arrests. With this excellent introduction, the movie smoothly segued into Frederick Aiken's efforts to defend Mrs. Surratt.
However, no movie is perfect. And "THE CONSPIRATOR" had its own imperfections. My main problem centered on three characters - a close friend of Aiken's named Nicholas Baker, who was portrayed by Justin Long; actress Alexis Bledel's portrayal of Aiken's fiancee, Sarah Weston; and the presence of Oscar winner Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. My only problem with Bledel was that her performance struck me as mediocre. No amount of romantic scenes or beautiful 19th century costumes could alleviate her performance. Justin Long's presence proved to be a waste of time - at least for me. One, Redford and Solomon included a meaningless scene featuring the aftermath of a nameless Civil War battle with both James McAvoy's Aiken and Long lying on the ground, wounded. What was the point of this scene? To establish Aiken's devotion to the Union cause in the form of his friend, Baker? If so, I feel it failed to achieve this. Long was further wasted as one of the two friends who tried to convince Aiken not to defend Mrs. Surratt. Actually, James Badge Dale, who portrayed the young attorney's other friend, William Hamilton, was used more effectively for this task. Long merely hung around slightly drunk or sober, as he grunted his disapproval toward Aiken. And I cannot understand why Redford even bothered to include his character in the plot. Also wasted was Kevin Kline's portrayal of Edwin H. Stanton. Aside from convincing Reverdy Johnson not to personally defend Mrs. Surratt, barking instructions to government lackeys following the incidents at Ford's Theater and Seward's home, and ignoring Aiken's attempts to contact him; Kline's Stanton did nothing. I had expected some kind of confrontation between Aiken and Stanton . . . again, nothing happened.
Fortunately for "THE CONSPIRATOR", the good outweighed the bad. This was certainly apparent in the rest of the cast. I would never consider Frederick Aiken to be one of James McAvoy's best roles. But I cannot deny that he did an admirable job in transforming Aiken's character from a reluctant legal defender to his client's most ardent supporter. He also infused the right mixture of passion, anger and growing cynicism into his character. I have seen Robin Wright only in a small number of roles. But I do believe that Mary Surratt might prove to be one of her best in a career that has already spanned over twenty years. What truly impressed me about Wright's performance was her ability to avoid portraying Surratt as some ladylike martyr that barely did or said anything to avoid conviction. Although Wright's Surratt did suffer, she also conveyed grit and determination to alleviate her situation.
The majority of the cast for "THE CONSPIRATOR" gave solid performances. There were a few I considered standouts among the supporting cast. One of them turned out to be Danny Huston's intense portrayal of the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt. Evan Rachel Wood superbly guided Anna Surratt's character from a defiantly supportive daughter to a young woman on the edge of despair. Despite a slightly unconvincing Maryland accent, Tom Wilkinson gave an intelligent performance as U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson. I could also say the same about James Badge Dale's portrayal of William Hamilton, one of Aiken's friends, who proved to be a wise adviser. As for actor Toby Kebbell, I have to admit that he made a convincing John Wilkes Booth.
I cannot deny that Robert Redford and screenwriter James Solomon made a few missteps with the plot and at least two characters for "THE CONSPIRATOR". But as I had stated earlier, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Both director and screenwriter provided moviegoers with a fascinating and frightening look into the abuse of power during a famous historic event. And they were backed by excellent performances from the likes of James McAvoy and Robin Wright. I only hope that one day, audiences might overlook Redford's current negative reputation as a filmmaker and give "THE CONSPIRATOR" a second chance.