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Movie Review: ‘The Conspirator’

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(Robin Wright and James McAvoy star in "The Conspirator," directed by Robert Redford)

(Robin Wright and James McAvoy star in “The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford)

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By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

One hundred and fifty years ago, she was the lone woman implicated in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, the first assassination of a US president.  And her story provides the basis for Robert Redford’s latest directorial outing, a look back at little-known history to see whether it has anything to say to us.

2c2bd Movie Review: The ConspiratorThe verdict, whether unanimous or not: it does.

The Conspirator is a courtroom drama that tells the true story of the only female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The film has dramatic limitations, to be sure — it is overly deliberate as it dispenses history-lesson exposition in the early going, making it look and feel like merely a glossy reënactment — but it gains momentum and earns our respect as the narrative unfolds and, by film’s end, resonates with our recent history.

In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, eight people are arrested:  seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt, played by Robin Wright.  She is the owner of a boardinghouse in Washington, DC (and the mother of one of the seven men), and she’s accused of conspiring with actor John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the president.

Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy (at right in photo), is the inexperienced 28-year-old lawyer and ex-Union soldier and war hero who, despite believing Mary to be guilty, reluctantly agrees to defend her in a military tribunal — thus with no jury — after being directly pressured by a Maryland senator (played by Tom Wilkinson) and indirectly manipulated by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played by Kevin Kline).

As the treason trial proceeds, Aiken comes to believe that the government may be using Surratt as bait to help them catch her son, a suspected conspirator who remains on the loose.

Robert Redford’s career in the director’s chair has been for the most part a distinguished one.  He won an Oscar as best director for Ordinary People, his very first outing, in 1980, and followed it up with such fine films as A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, and The Horse Whisperer, among others.

The Conspirator does not live up to the standards of Redford’s best work, but it’s still a creditable drama, his strongest showing in over a decade despite its lack of urgency.

As we watch, and although they are not belabored, we cannot help but see the parallels to our recent history: it is nearly impossible not to think about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the national debate that ensued about the authorities’ seemingly unprecedented disregard of certain civil liberties and Constitutional rights.

The screenplay by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein explores the tension that results as our desire for legal justice bumps up against our need for government-policed security, and strains a bit for modern relevance as it details the way fear is manipulated by the folks in charge (sound familiar?) to move us in the direction of the outcome they’re looking for.

The work turned in by the ensemble cast — which includes Danny Huston, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, and Colm Meaney — could be described as workmanlike, but there is one performance that burns through the screen and transcends the particulars of the plot:  Robin Wright as Mary brings to her every on-screen moment as a proud member of the defeated Confederacy a combination of perseverance, quiet dignity, fierce maternal love, and her particular brand of patriotism.

So we’ll try 2½ stars out of 4 for the passably powerful political parable The Conspirator, director Robert Redford’s demonstration of William Faulkner’s contention that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

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