What everyone knows about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln amounts to the movie-trailer version of the real story: The actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth shoots the U.S. president in a theatre box, leaps to the stage and declares, " Sic semper tyrannis!" before making his escape, stage right, to his waiting horse.
The most welcome part of Robert Redford's new movie The Conspirator is that it fills in some of the corners and backdrop to that vignette, placing Booth as the ringleader of a group of rebel-sympathizing conspirators who set out to kill not only the president, but vice-president and secretary of state in a virtual coup d'état.
As might be expected from Redford ( Quiz Show, Lions for Lambs), The Conspirator bears the familiar stamp of Hollywood quality: a stirring political tale, a cast of English and American prestige actors, well-researched locations and costumes, illuminated in buttery, lamp-lit interiors. For the first half hour, the movie even moves fairly briskly.
Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is a young lawyer turned Union captain, who we first meet showing his dedication to his men in the aftermath of a bloody battle. Two years later, back in Washington, Aiken is about to return to civilian life with his pretty socialite fiancée (Alexis Bledel). Then comes the shooting of the president at Ford's Theatre, and everything changes.
The assassination, the death of Booth in a shootout and the roundup of the conspirators happen in quick tableaux, followed by a montage of newspaper headlines, declaring the nation in a state of shock and grief. The secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), takes charge, issues commands and sets the wheels in motion for a national show trial. The reluctant Aiken, ready to slip into soft civil life, is ordered by his superior, Southern senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to defend the most controversial of the conspirators: Forty-two-year-old Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), mother of one of the accused men and tied tangentially to the case as the landlady of a boarding house where the others met.
As the trial starts, the initially unready Aiken scores a few lucky points and then discovers that his role in the trial is to lose. The military tribunal, presided over by General David Hunter (Colm Meaney), works hand-in-hand with the unctuous prosecutor, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), while the real strings are being pulled by Stanton.
The fix is also in for the movie. As the de facto leader, Kline, staring coldly through his spectacles, holds his mouth with a distinctly Dick Cheney-esque sneer, one of the many indications that the fix is also in for the drama. Redford and screenwriter James Solomon are not subtle in drawing parallels between the post-Civil War crackdown and the post-9/11 dismissal of individual rights (especially in Guantanamo) for the sake of national security. Once the ideological cat is out of the bag, the drama is degraded to the level of a historical pageant.
With Redford and Solomon having seized command of the thinking functions for the audience, what remains is the lesser pleasure of watching the actors go through their paces: The scruffy cast of conspirators essentially provides more set decor - they have almost nothing to say. The veteran actors in the ensemble (Meaney, Kline, Wilkinson) play their one-note roles with stagey professionalism. In contrast, Wright's performance as the wan martyr, blinking in the sunlight, is so internalized she barely registers. The one happy surprise is Evan Rachel Wood, vibrant in a small part as Mary's tormented daughter Anna, forced to choose between loyalty to her mother or her brother.
What vigour is left in the movie comes from the congenial, though not weighty, McAvoy. As the young lawyer, he's bipolar from scene to scene, with each legal Hail Mary play followed by shocked defeat in the face of what amounts to evidence of a new conspiracy - the government and military's determination to convict by any means. Though the Bush-era parallels are at the forefront, Redford hasn't moved too far here from an earlier political-thriller template: With its skulduggery, late-night meetings and the contemptuous political cabal out to thwart justice, The Conspirator can be thought of as All the President's Men - The Lincoln Edition.
- Directed by Robert Redford
- Written by James Solomon
- Starring James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood and Robin Wright
- Classification: PG