The Conspirator (PG-13)
2 1/2 stars out of 4
In addition to being named the most admired president in U.S. history in virtually every known poll, Abraham Lincoln is also the most frequently featured non-fictional chief executive in film history. Releasing a movie about his assassination on the day after its 146th anniversary could be seen as crass by some and fittingly appropriate by others. Whatever the perspective, it will hopefully educate yet another generation of young Americans and remind the rest of us of the tragic end of the greatest leader our country has ever known.
"The Conspirator" is only the eighth film directed by Robert Redford in the last 30 years and it is probably only his fourth best, yet it is arguably his most daring. To make a movie about the Lincoln assassination and not have the Lincoln character speak once and only be seen fleetingly takes a lot of chutzpah and artistic fortitude.
There isn't much we don't already know regarding the details of the assassination, which is amazing when you consider it took place in the middle of the 19th century. Hundreds of people present at Ford's Theater in Washington witnessed it and almost the same amount was aware to some degree of the inner circle of murderer John Wilkes Booth. From a legal standpoint, the trial of the surviving conspirators seemed like an open-and-shut-case, but in fact it wasn't and that is the crux and most intriguing facet of Redford's film.
While Booth (also shown only briefly) was carrying out his murder of Lincoln, three of his cohorts were assigned to kill other high-ranking officials and all of them failed. They fully deserved to die for their acts and were summarily executed. There was no question of their guilt. That wasn't quite the case for Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a woman whose only crimes, at least on the surface, were being the mother of another accomplice and owning the boarding house where Booth and his associates devised their plan.
Apart from the 30 or so minutes committed to the events of April 14, 1865, and the two weeks after that it took to find Booth, the remainder of the movie is a standard-issue courtroom drama.
Only but a scant few lay people know all of the details of Surratt's unlawful and unconstitutional military trial and what is unveiled throughout -- factual or not -- is engrossing. In the wake of the Civil War and the immediate, jarring murder of Lincoln, watching former Union officer and war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) defend his largely uncooperative client with every fiber of his being -- coupled with his own monumental moral conflicts -- provides the movie overflowing dramatic conflict. Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon totally nail this aspect of the story.
No matter what century the setting -- present day or otherwise -- courtroom dramas are inherently stifling, and even the performances by Colm Meaney as an inflexible army judge and Danny Huston as the condescending prosecuting attorney can't stave off the static and rote procedural. As wanting as some of the courtroom stuff is, it also makes it clear that Surratt was being made an example of and that she didn't receive a fair trial. Whether she was guilty of a capital crime or not is irrelevant. In the rush to make as many people pay for Lincoln's death, the judicial wing of the armed services carried out a huge miscarriage of justice.
Even with its missteps and frequent lethargic pacing, "The Conspirator" is an indispensable "rest of the story" kind of movie that sheds some much needed light on the least known facet of one the darkest and most tragic events in U.S. history. (Roadside Attractions)