Robert Redford's (Ordinary People, Quiz Show) new film, The Conspirator, tells a portion of an important historical event that I'm not all that familiar with. We all know about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by radical theater actor John Wilkes Booth, but I wasn't aware of the trial held against his co-conspirators. I enjoyed watching this film and then going online to research what it got right and what it altered for dramatic reasons. The film seemed to stay true to the themes and ideas that were batting around the heads of these characters, while still changing things just enough to keep us, the audience, interested.
Now I'm going to do one of those summary thing I do where I tell you who all the players are mainly to brag about all the actors I recognized.
Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is the mother of John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), who was the right-hand man to Booth (Toby Kebbell). When Surratt is arrested alongside another conspirator (Norman Reedus), she pleads innocent because she claims to have actually had no knowledge of the plot to assassinate Lincoln and other cabinet members. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is assigned her case and hands it to the main character of the film, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), because Johnson has some connections to the South. It is important to understand that the country had just come out of a civil war, slavery had been abolished, and one of the most beloved leaders in its history had been slain. The public was crying for blood and Aiken has to measure vengeance against justice and vice-versa. His wife (Alexis Bledel) and friends (Justin Long and James Badge Dale) watch from the sidelines as Aiken comes to side with Ms. Surratt and even they feel betrayed by Aiken who had served his country in the war. Aiken finds himself up against a ruthless judge (Colm Meaney), an intense prosecutor (Danny Huston), lying witnesses (Shea Whigam, Stephen Root, Jonathan Groff), and even the Secretary of War (Kevin Kline).
Okay, now that I'm done showing off (I swear I didn't use Wikipedia... okay, maybe for the names of the characters) let me just say, what a well-acted film. Wilkinson and Huston are at the top of their games as the defense and prosecution lawyers. McAvoy's change in heart is also so believable (I'm reminded of when I first saw him in The Last King of Scotland where his character's opinion on a dictator changed over the course of a film). Look at the scene where he first visits Surratt's daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, don't think I forgot about her) and then a later visit. Just those scenes alone which were probably filmed in the same day, are so radically different and yet true to what we've seen of Aiken so far. The story this film presents is just fascinating, whether it is accurate or not.
What didn't I like about it? Well, I found Wright to be too awkward (best word I can come up with at the moment) of a character. She kind of just stares and screams and then gets quiet. I just couldn't find much sympathy for her until the final moments of the film. Basically, I sided with her because Aiken did. By herself she just seemed to strung-out (as if she was smoking what they were smoking in Your Highness). Certain elements also felt very theatrical and staged. Not the courtroom scenes, they were superb. The scenes outside of the court, they felt very heavy-handed as if to over-bluntly say "this is soooo violating the constitution and that is a horrible thing and our country really screws up every so often." It just didn't always feel fair and balanced and this critique actually goes against some of the real history. According to some articles I've read, Huston's character actually also sided with Aiken on how wrong it was to hold a military tribunal for civilians. In other words, characters were over-villified and of course with Aiken trying to represent the ultimate good, that leads to cliche distancing of himself from his wife.
Ultimately, I can overlook these flaws because of how fascinating the subject matter is. I think more liberal-minded people might look at this and find it less heavy-handed than I did because it does remind me of events that unfolded in Guantanamo Bay. I just suppose I wanted to know more definitively whether or not Surratt was actually a conspirator. Then again, like most truths, the public only knows part of it.