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The Conspirator

Redford's Courtroom Drama

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Conspirator, Robert Redfordís first film in four years, focuses on the little-known aftermath of President Abraham Lincolnís assassination, the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a boarding-house owner and the mother of one of the conspirators, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons).

Surratt escaped to Canada. Mary was quickly arrested and put on trial for treason, a charge punishable by death. Maryís guilt (or lack thereof) lies at the center of The Conspirator, but so does the questionable (then and now) use of military tribunals or military commissions instead of civilian courts to try civilians for federal crimes.

The Conspirator opens on a battlefield as Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union captain, lies wounded next to his friend and fellow Union Army officer, Nicholas Baker (Justin Long). When medics arrive, Aiken refuses care, compelling the medics to tend to Baker first, a scene that sets up Aikenís compassionate and principled nature.

Months later, both Aiken and Baker are attending a celebration for Union officers and politicians in Washington, D.C. Itís also the same night that John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor and Confederate spy, assassinates Lincoln at Fordís Theatre. Booth dies before he can be captured and brought to trial. The other conspirators are captured, arrested, and imprisoned.

The Conspirator depicts Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), Lincolnís Secretary of War, as the central driving force behind trying the conspirators in front of military tribunals. Stanton wants the conspirators tried and executed quickly, to quell further assassination attempts, for revenge, and to move the country toward healing.

He succeeds in circumventing the civilian courts for military tribunals to try the conspirators. The conspirators canít take the stand in their own defense; evidence canít be presented against them without notice to defense counsel; and hearsay can be admitted against them, individually and collectively significant departures from the criminal justice system.

Stanton hands over the prosecution of the conspirators to Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), the Judge-Advocate General. Initially, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a Maryland Senator, takes on Surrattís case, but Johnson, realizing that his southern connections might undermine Surrattís case, convinces Aiken, now a junior associate at Johnsonís practice, to take the case.

Aiken balks at first, believing Surratt guilty. Heís also justifiably concerned about the impact taking Surrattís case would have on his social standing and his impending marriage to Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), all of which leads to a predictable character arc for Aiken, from doubter to believer, from reluctant advocate to forceful advocate for Surrattís rights and, less convincingly, her innocence.

As a director, Redfordís experience as an actor has enabled him to elicit strong performances from actors. Robin Wright makes Surratt a sympathetic, compelling figure without slipping into histrionics or melodrama. She gives Surratt just enough shading through line readings and subtle shifts in body language to make an ambiguous case for Surrattís innocence. Surratt may have known more or at least suspected more, but never admitted as much.

Redford, however, has never been a visually oriented filmmaker. His shooting style tends toward the unimaginative and conventional, a problem for a film like The Conspirator that relies heavily on dialogue in and out of the courtroom. The courtroom scenes could have used a more inventive approach. Instead, Redford uses and re-uses the same setups. That may allow actors room to give their performances nuance, but it does little for moviegoers sitting on the other side of the silver screen.

Despite the at-times stagnant pacing, The Conspirator succeeds in giving moviegoers a window into a little known episode in American history, leaving unanswered questions about civil liberties in wartime just as applicable today as they were almost 150 years ago.