Released on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s slaying, Robert Redford’s (Lions for Lambs, The Horse Whisperer) The Conspirator commences with a wide shot depicting a ravaged battleground: Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) lying in a ditch alongside his comrade Nicholas Baker (Justin Long), and several hundred bloodied troopers. The shot closes in on both Union soldiers and their respective wounds — Redford setting the scene for what appears to be a solemn end to their services. Fortunately, medics arrive — insisting they treat Aiken’s fatal wounds first, although he declines the service — asserting that Baker is the one in need of immediate aid (and exemplifying the man’s dedication to both his country and its inhabitants). However, this bond is to be tested when the film fast-forwards to a party celebrating a Union victory, where both men — crippled albeit breathing — are in attendance; here, they learn that President Lincoln has instead chosen to frequent Ford’s Theatre — an ominous reminder of things to come.
While at the celebration, they learn of the President’s assassination — the work of occasional actor, John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), who, following the murder, jumps on stage proclaiming, “The South is avenged.” But in the wake of his death, six more men and one woman are arrested — charged with conspiracy to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. Amongst them is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the lone woman, owner of a boarding house where the men planned their attack, and mother of the only conspirator to escape the manhunt, who is to stand before a military tribunal, at which Aiken has agreed to defend her. But despite his personal convictions, the Union war-hero soon realizes that his client may actually be innocent.
The Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana once remarked that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is a philosophy that the newly-incepted American Film Company firmly stands by. Already working on another batch of motion pictures, The Arsenal and Midnight Riders, the production company has differentiated itself by focusing solely on films rooted in American history. The Conspirator, however, is a lukewarm first effort — the meandering pace and lack of urgency brought on by James D. Solomon’s script undermining the multifaceted characters and excellent performances.
If nothing else, Solomon handles the two leads, Aiken and Surratt, impeccably. There is juxtaposition between Mary’s devout Catholic faith and her disdain for the North — a reasonable byproduct of the Civil War for a Southern woman caught in the crossfire of total-war — and Aiken’s ardor for quite the opposite. In addition, Surratt’s dedication to her son — whether the end result is life or death — adds another layer of humanity. Whereas it is Aiken’s willingness to put personal motivations aside that makes the character idiosyncratic. What they do have in common is that both are played remarkably by their respective performers; McAvoy’s quiet strength and passion making for a perfect fit, while Wright’s portrayal of hopelessness is incredibly realistic.
In spite of this (and formidable set and costume design), The Conspirator has its slow points — periods of dissipating dialogue and plodding plot development. During these scenes, even the supporting thespians, of which include Tom Wilkinson, as Reverdy Johnson, Aiken’s Southern-born mentor, and Norman Reedus, one of the traitors whose mannerisms tell a story of violence and frustration, cannot save the production.
But perhaps Santayana was right — Redford’s latest still shows resonance today. It reminds us how easy it is, in the face of blight, for our leaders to subvert the Constitution. In the trial of Mary Surratt, members of the cabinet set up biases in the form of courtroom officials who, operating on political agendas made her the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. Sadly though, the film isn’t as memorable as the events that inspired it.