Redford delivers a plodding but thoughtful historical treatment
Was Mary Surratt innocent? She was the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government. The crime of which she was convicted? Conspiring in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The Conspirator is a film that may be criticized as painting Surratt as a victim and the system that convicted her corrupt. But the central question of Surratt’s guilt or innocence is never fully answered in the movie. To be sure, the draconian tactics attributed to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton following the assassination seem tyrannical and even sinister. The film, however, plays everything more objectively than viewers might expect. The irony, of course, is that after her execution, Surratt’s son and alleged co-conspirator, John, was tried and found not guilty in the assassination plot that resulted in his mother’s death by hanging. That fact alone speaks volumes.
In the film, solemnly directed by sure-handed Robert Redford, Surratt is played skillfully by Robin Wright (Forest Gump). While she’s certainly sympathetic, the tone of the performance and the approach taken by Redford manages to remove much of the melodrama that might otherwise mar any shot at credibility. And as released, the movie surely feels credible. The America of 1865 is captured in a way that makes it seem quaint and much less glamorous than we’ve been accustomed to seeing in Hollywood productions. The elitist parties shown in the movie are rather humble affairs lacking in pomp and circumstance. The scale of the entire production feels rather small. Even the opening scene that takes place on a Civil War battlefield is restricted and shot closely, establishing an atmosphere of intimacy for the whole picture.
The Conspirator isn’t a historical epic; it’s a courtroom procedural taken from a time when The Law as we know it wasn’t in place. In the 1860’s the very protections we hold near and dear were still evolving and being interpreted on basic levels. Mary Surratt was not tried in any courtroom we are familiar with. Instead, she was tried and convicted in the assassination plot by a nine-member military commission. And she was represented by a young attorney, Frederick Aiken, who was formerly a Union Army officer.
In the film, Aiken is played by James McAvoy (Atonement), who initially seems completely wrong for the role. But in fact, McAvoy’s uncomfortable and uncertain attitude that could be characterized as “itchy” in playing Aiken is one of the reasons the film’s second and third acts work so well. Aiken doesn’t want to represent Surratt thinking that as so new a lawyer, his skills would be ill-suited for the task. But a little bit of magic happens as McAvoy literally grows into the role. It’s all part of the understated grace permeating Redford’s direction.
As much as The Conspirator exudes sincerity, it’s hardly an entertaining film. The early stages are slowgoing and some viewers will become restless. At times, it’s like a Masterpiece Theater production, languishing on dialogue-heavy moments that lack action and suspense. Still, as a handsome and important film focusing on one woman’s plight that reflects a nation’s division, The Conspirator is a reminder that the big problems are often personal ones as well.
Jonathan W. Hickman is an entertainment attorney, novelist (The Taster), longtime film critic, and co-director of the 2009 political documentary feature, Crashing the Party. Episodes of his cable television show, The Film Fix, can be watched online at http://dailyfilmfix.com/