A better history lesson than it is a drama, The Conspirator acknowledges the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in a studious, almost reverent mode. History buffs will recognize the name of Mary Surratt, the title character, but many Americans have heard only of her more notorious acquaintance: John Wilkes Booth.
Robert Redford's movie is mostly courtroom procedural, telling two interlaced stories. One is about how the U.S. government rushed a few suspects before a military tribunal in an attempt to avenge Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The other is the more intimate tale of how a young lawyer fresh out of his Union army uniform was pressed to defend Surratt -- and came to respect her.
Historical records being what they are, the filmmakers are forced to speculate about certain things, but where facts are known they generally adhere to them. The script doesn't add much to what's known about Surratt (Robin Wright), a Southern sympathizer who may have been arrested simply because the government couldn't capture her son. But it inflates the nobility of lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who is portrayed as too high-minded to accept any abuse of due process.
The story begins with back-to-back prologues. First, Aiken demonstrates his selflessness on the battlefield; next, a group of conspirators attacks Lincoln and other officials. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, theatrical as usual) pulls an Al Haig: He orders subordinates to keep Andrew Johnson, soon to be president, away from booze; then he rushes to Lincoln's side. Stanton will remain in charge until the last appeal is heard -- or prevented from being heard.
In the courtroom at Washington's Fort McNair, Aiken faces imperious prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and a hostile tribunal of uniformed officers. Local society is no friendlier. As the case proceeds, Aiken is expelled from his gentlemen's club and dumped by his fiancee (Alexis Bledel). Meanwhile, he is received with contempt by Mary Surratt's daughter (an impressively subtle Evan Rachel Wood) at the family's downtown boarding house, where some of the conspirators stayed.
Although the outcome of Surratt's trial is a matter of public record, The Conspirator treats the case as the stuff of a suspense thriller. Outraged by the prosecution's conduct, Aiken makes pleas to conscience and seeks a last-minute writ of habeas corpus. Stanton is not amused. Or swayed.
Although more movie star than actor himself, Redford likes to cast theater-trained performers, often those whose native accent is not American. In addition to McAvoy, The Conspirator features Briton Tom Wilkinson (as Reverdy Johnson, the Maryland senator who recruits Aiken to defend Surratt) and Irishman Colm Meaney (as Gen. David Hunter, the leader of the tribunal). It gets a bit distracting.
So does the film's look. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel uses desaturated color to suggest that age has faded the images, and presents the stony-faced Surratt's prison cell as something out of a Renaissance painting, with deep shadows and a near-theological shaft of light. And 1860s Washington, played by Savannah, looks too Southern and too pretty. Surratt's boarding house, for example, is impersonated by a gracious corner house that faces a tree-filled square. (The real building, which still stands, has none of these selling points.)
Historical niceties aside, The Conspirator is also about Guantanamo, of course. "In times of war, the law falls silent," says the prosecutor, quoting Cicero. In its final minutes, the movie shows that the American justice system returned to normal soon after the South surrendered. But it offers no insights into the consequences of a war that never ends.