A film divided against itself cannot stand. In the historical drama The Conspirator director Robert Redford is torn between telling the story of Mary Surratt a Washington D.C. woman implicated (wrongly it seems) in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln and delivering a scathing cinematic indictment of the government’s treatment of civilian detainees in the War on Terror. Redford’s efforts at making his political argument however convincing come at a significant cost sapping the film of much of its entertainment value.
The Conspirator begins in a spirited enough fashion vividly chronicling the events surrounding Lincoln's assassination and its tumultuous aftermath. As word of the president's death spreads angry Northerners demand swift and harsh justice for John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts while panicked newspaper headlines warn of future attacks by Confederate malcontents. The suspects are rounded up (save for Booth who is shot before being apprehended) and soon thereafter the story shifts to the trial of Surratt (Robin Wright) mother of one of the conspirators and owner of the boarding house in which the assassination plot was hatched. Her fate the government has decreed is to be decided not by a jury of her peers but by a military tribunal – an unprecedented move that amounts to nothing less than “an atrocity ’” declares her attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in a withering speech that makes the film’s overriding Guantanamo allegory crystal clear.
Southern-bred Johnson thinks Surratt might get a fairer shake from the court with a yankee representing her and so he places her case in the hands of his protégée Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a 28-year-old Union war hero with no courtroom experience. His task is a daunting one: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) a scheming Cheney/Rumsfeld composite is manipulating matters behind the scenes to subvert the rule of law and ensure a conviction despite indications of Surratt’s innocence. Aiken’s impassioned defense and the great personal and professional risks he takes in mounting it ultimately provide the crux of the film.
Lest we forget The Conspirator’s political raison d’etre Redford takes care to remind us repeatedly with a heavy-handedness that detracts from an otherwise compelling story. Pertinent plot details are skimmed over to leave room for ham-fisted dialogue exchanges. Surratt and Aiken are treated less as characters than as symbols a sainted mother and an idealistic lawyer martyred by a government so bent on retribution that it abandoned its most cherished principles in pursuit of it. In one telling scene Aiken walks alone at night on a cobblestone street bathed in so much radiant light that his body is partially obscured. The only thing missing is a halo.