Mary Surratt is one of those historical figures with a familiar name but an unfamiliar story. Ask a dozen people to place her and a few may equate her with the Civil War, but only the most hardcore history buffs will tell you that she was a convicted conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.
Such is the long shadow of John Wilkes Booth, who did not act alone and was in fact part of a much larger plot to carry out a coup on the night of April 14, 1865. The coup failed. Attempts to assassinate the vice president and secretary of state were foiled, but a war-ravaged nation still woke the next morning to news of its first assassinated president.
And this is where The Conspirator picks up the story, in the midst of a frenzied manhunt for both Booth and his cohorts, a roundup that includes just about anyone officials suspect could have played a role in the plot. (In a scene weeks after the assassination, we see all of the Ford's Theater actors still imprisoned—and still in costume—due to their loose association with Booth.) They eventually get to Surratt, a widowed Confederate sympathizer who ran a Washington, D.C boarding house that played host to many of the conspirators during the planning stages of the assassination. It's her fugitive son John they really want, but with tensions so high—remember, the Civil War had officially ended just four days prior—they'll settle for the mother. If you're sensing some modern connections, there's much more of that to come.
Robert Redford doesn't make many films, but the ones he does are usually pretty good. He's meticulous in telling this compelling tale largely forgotten by history. And The Conspirator is as much an education as anything—a Civil War courtroom drama that manages to hold its audience for more than two hours, hardly an easy task with such a dialogue-heavy screenplay. It's also heavy-handed—another Redford trait—and succeeds in spite of some truly curious casting choices.
Unfortunately the most glaringly miscast is James McAvoy as lead protagonist Frederick Aiken, the 27-year-old lawyer and former war hero who begrudgingly accepts the task of defending Surratt in the hastily arranged military tribunal. The deck is stacked against him, not least because of the questionable legality of trying civilians in a military court in front of nine judges who have been handpicked by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played with rigor by an unrecognizable Kevin Kline).
McAvoy is fine at conveying the exasperation of fighting a pre-determined outcome, all while defending a client who would rather die than give up her fugitive son. But he is generally overwhelmed by the role and the gravitas that it requires. The same goes for the actors playing Aiken's contemporaries, especially Justin Long, the Apple guy who is impossible to take seriously as a Civil War veteran trying to dissuade his friend from taking the case.
Justin, despite the old-timey mustache, you are not a convincing 19th century soldier—as you've reminded us countless times, you are in fact a Mac.
But the rookies in The Conspirator are saved over and over by a stellar group of veterans led by Tom Wilkinson as an aging senator and mentor to Aiken, and Robin Wright as Surratt. Wright is admirably restrained in a role that almost demands melodrama, playing a headstrong mother who is certainly guilty of something, but not to the degree she is charged. Surely this is an unjust trial, but she also knowingly harbored Booth and his fellow conspirators. Because of this it's never clear whether she deserves our sympathy or scorn, and that's a hard line to walk convincingly, as Wright does here.
Redford almost undermines these strong performances and captivating story thanks to an odd lack of confidence in his audience to understand the subtext of it all. He might as well have had Aiken begin his opening statement by declaring "this trial will be an allegory for the post 9/11 United States." And it is, of course: Whether it's officials being asked to take loyalty oaths or the disconcerting inclination of presidential administrations to prioritize vengeance above the Constitution during times of war, The Conspirator is a reminder that if you wait long enough, history is bound to repeat itself. But Redford bombards us with pages of unsubtle dialogue and long dramatic pauses in which he practically begs us to see what we already understand.
Trust your audience, Bob. With a story this good, there's no need for that hammer and mallet.
The Conspirator continues at the Village 6.