Conspirator, The (2010): Redford’s Well-Intentioned but Flawed Tale of Lincoln’s Assassinaton

Robert Redford’s Civil War-era drama, “The Conspirator,” is well-intentioned but misbegotten in execution.

World-premiering at the 2010 Toronto Film Fest, “The Conspirator” will be released by Roadside Attractions on April 15.

Redford’s ambitious independent indie is a work of historical reconstruction, also aiming to serve as allegory of the present. In exploring questions of guilt, duty and professionalism, the movie tries hard but doesn’t succeed in interpolating a courtroom thriller with a deeper consideration of the country, its ideas and foundation.

“In time of war, the law is suspended,” observes one key participant. Working from James Solomon’s script, Redford captures the pulse and social tenor in the aftermath of an unspeakable American tragedy, the Good Friday 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The story makes it deeply personal, even visceral one, told largely from the point of view of a bright and ambitious Union officer turned lawyer. He is enlisted to defend the woman accused of providing aid, sanctuary and material support to the ring of Confederate loyalists, especially John Wilkes Booth, which killed Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

As a director, Redford has never been a great stylist or formal talent. His best films, “Quiz Show“ and “Ordinary People,“ have strong scripts, intelligence and a polished veneer. Redford, like his other mentor, the late Sydney Pollack (who had directed him in many pictures), is a clean and capable director of plot-driven tales.

With the help of the editor Craig McKay, Redford creates a frenzied sense of fear and violation, judiciously moving between the different phases of the coordinated attack, such as Wilkes shooting Lincoln at the Ford Theatre, or Lewis Powell’s attack on Seward.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), introduced suffering serious battle wounds in 1863, is a decorated Union captain who, in the wake of Sherman’s surrender, is poised to make the transition into an idealistic Washington lawyer.

Deeply shaken by Lincoln’s death, he is outraged, even offended, when his political mentor, a powerful Maryland senator (Tom Wilkison), drafts him to take up the defense of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman indicted on charges of treason and conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination plot.

“I’m a Southerner, a Catholic and a mother,” Mary explains, categorically refusing to give up any incriminating evidence about her son, a Confederate courier and Booth associate, who has disappeared. Her boarding house, a holding space for the other prominent defendants, becomes the dominant evidence for the government in its argument of Mary’s complicity.

The political relevance, offering a strenuously contemporary parallel, of both 9/11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, is that the ring of conspirators are tried, not in court, but in a specially-convened military tribunal.

Though personally affronted, Aiken reluctantly carries out the assignment and becomes a man of action, horrified by what he regards as government misconduct to secure a favorable and politically salvageable verdict.

Agile and bright, Aiken becomes a gateway to examine other matters, not necessarily about Mary’s guilt, but deeper issues about the rule of law and the foundation of the republic, the very tenets that Lincoln fought and struggled so hold to uphold.

Redford depicts the dynamics of a courtroom tale, the necessarily adversarial relationship between Aiken and his government counterpart (Danny Huston). He moves through time and space, drawing flashbacks and disputed testimony.

Unfortunately, “The Conspirator” is a moral exploration that tends to be more messy and ambiguous than clear and righteous.  This may be a result of  Redford’s decision to ground the drama in recognizable terms, exploring the ramifications of action and character on family, like the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s caught in the crossfire.

The larger social fabric is also too sketchy. Kevin Kline does his typically shrewd and sharp impersonation of the war minister, Edwin Stanton, who’s determined to achieve the desired results. Robin Wright, angular and defiant, is skillful and composed.

“The Conspirator” has its share of dead spaces and parts, and some characters are ill-at ease, such as a poorly written role for Aiken’s love interest (Alexis Bledel). The tale’s least convincing parts deal with Aiken’s social estrangement from the Washington elite.

Visually, Redford, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, and production designer Kalina Ivanov, clearly inspired by the photography of Matthew Brady, have created a look of bleached out, desiccated colors, which tries to achieve, particularly in the tribunal sequences, a charged, even religious, intensity.