Speeches, orations, objections, rebuttals — so many different ways to talk, argue and pontificate, and they’re all on prominent display in Robert Redford’s expansively chatty American history lesson, “The Conspirator.” Using the fascinating, little-known events immediately following Lincoln’s assassination to rebuke the mob mentality that would deny any defendant a fair trial, this methodical courtroom drama is charged with impassioned performances and an unimpeachable liberal message. But its stodgy emphasis on telling over showing will limit its reach to Civil War buffs and self-selecting older viewers, given the mainstream aversion even to period dramas more action-oriented than this.
A fledgling feature for the American Film Co., which is seeking a distributor in Toronto, “The Conspirator” opens with a brief, budget-conscious evocation of the Civil War battlefield, establishing the heroic military service of young Union soldier and aspiring attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Leaping forward two years, Redford fluidly re-creates the fateful events at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, and the concurrent savage but not fatal attack on Secretary of State William Seward.
Once the front-loaded action has died down, the story proper begins, picking methodically through the embers of the plot to defeat Lincoln’s administration — a full-blown conspiracy that extended well beyond John Wilkes Booth (played here by Toby Kebbell). Eight alleged conspirators are rounded up, the lone woman among them being Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), owner of the boarding house where Booth and his collaborators met regularly.
Convinced of Mary’s complicity (though she coldly denies any involvement), Aiken is shocked when his mentor, Southern attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), tasks him with defending the woman before a Washington military tribunal, which — as presided over by Gen. David Hunter (Colm Meaney) and overseen from afar by dangerously empowered Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline) — seems unlikely to guarantee Mary a constitutional fair hearing. Even Aiken isn’t certain she deserves one, until he begins to investigate the recent disappearance of Mary’s son, John (Johnny Simmons), a Booth associate for whom she seems to be taking the fall.
Exhaustively researched from historical accounts, trial transcripts and personal diaries, James Solomon’s imposingly articulate screenplay (based on a story by Solomon and Gregory Bernstein) sketches a portrait of a fragile America, torn between two polarized sides and in danger of sacrificing justice on the altar of revenge. If that sounds familiar, it’s meant to; while no direct reference is made to, say, the U.S. mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the wide-ranging topical implications of the picture’s overweeningly didactic approach are unmistakable.
Directed by Redford with his usual patient deliberation, “The Conspirator” offers receptive viewers the traditional pleasures of classical narrative construction and reams of eloquent talk. Yet while the courtroom proceedings compel attention initially — as Aiken’s case is frustrated at every turn by Hunter and the prosecutor, Judge Advocate Gen. Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) — a certain weariness sets in due to the lack of modulation in the discourse, the obviousness of the storytelling and the absence of any real subtext apart from the hard-to-miss contempo parallels.
If the film feels as though it would have been nearly as effective and less expensive as a radio play (it’s essentially “12 Angry Men” with kerosene lamps), it does offer the memorable image of Wright’s pallid, tightly drawn mask of a face; thesp is superb here, icily withholding at first but growing incrementally in tragic stature. One of a handful of actors from across the Pond (including Meaney and Wilkinson) in the enormous ensemble, McAvoy effectively shoulders the heavy dramatic burden with the necessary conviction and lung power. Other thesps are mostly fine in one-note parts, though Evan Rachel Wood is a standout as Mary’s daughter, who reluctantly assists Aiken in his search for the truth.
Pic was shot entirely in Savannah, Ga., whose substantially intact 19th-century architecture provides a suitable backdrop for the production. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography has an evocative, burnished quality but is at times dominated by too many blinding shafts of sunlight, lending the film a slight waxworks quality that keeps it from feeling entirely inhabited. Mark Isham’s music is applied to the film like drywall.