(by Dustin Putman
As the inaugural release of The American Film Company, a production shingle dedicated to mounting historically accurate projects, "The Conspirator" does, indeed, look about right in its details. Its is a story that not many people probably know—it certainly was never taught in my middle or high school—and for that it holds a certain amount of worth that it otherwise probably wouldn't have been able to claim. Sadly, the film is just not very good otherwise. Director Robert Redford (2007's "Lions for Lambs") has made a motion picture that looks and feels like something that should be showing on the History Channel, not in theaters. With meager scope, undernourished characters, and the inability to emotionally captivate, the all-star cast gets in the way of what most closely resembles a small-screen reenactment. Article continues below
April 1865. In a newly post-Civil War Washington, D.C., Union soldier Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) has no sooner returned home when the country's foundation is rattled to its core over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth is promptly shot dead in a barn for the crime, leaving seven men and one woman, 42-year-old Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), to be arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President. Novice attorney Aiken believes they are guilty, but when his mentor, Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), enlists him to defend Mary in court, he has no choice but to agree to it. The more Aiken confers with Mary, who had allowed Booth to rent a room in her boarding house but claims to have not known about his dastardly plans, the more he begins to question her guilt. That her missing son, John (Johnny Simmons), was likely Booth's right-hand man doesn't exactly help her case. Convincing the court that she's innocent when they've already more or less closed the book on her is going to take a miracle.
Because "The Conspirator" covers a true story that isn't well-known, the outcome shall not be revealed here. What can be said is that this is an awfully dry rendering of a fascinating subject. It's too safe, too bland by a half, and director Robert Redford comes up empty in making the viewer care about first-time feature screenwriter James Solomon's slimly constructed ensemble of non-fictional players. There is some attempt to bridge the past with the present in the way the country is falsely manipulated to believe they are less than safe (the post-9/11 National Threat Level, anyone?), but overall this is no more, no less than a commonplace courtroom drama with a point to make about how screwed-up the justice system was in 1865 (and still kind of is).
James McAvoy (2008's "Wanted") is untested as Frederick Aiken, a wet-behind-the-ears attorney who begins the picture not believing in what he is fighting for, then grows to care about nothing else when he finds that he can't find proof that Mary Surratt is, without a shadow of a doubt, guilty. Even if she were, conspiring and murdering are two very different things, and she doesn't deserve a death sentence no matter what her hand in the crime was. McAvoy is undoubtedly the lead, yet it's a role of flimsy development and minimal breadth. Save for the sparse scenes with girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel), everything McAvoy has to do is directly connected with the plot. There is no sense of where he lives, of a family, or of much of a life beyond his job. As the imprisoned Mary, Robin Wright (2009's "State of Play") brings a steadfast bravery and assuredness to a part that rightfully never reveals whether or not she was a co-conspirator. At the same time, Wright is hurt by the rigidness of the writing; there is little feel for her life before the arrest other than the few details she verbally gives. Supporting these two is one superb performer after the next (just take a look at the cast list above), creating a pile-up of wasted talent. Tom Wilkinson (2011's "The Green Hornet") positions himself as a standout in the first act as Senator Reverdy Johnson, then moves to the background, while Evan Rachel Wood (2009's "Whatever Works") passionately makes the most of her fleeting scenes as Mary's daughter Anna. The rest of the cast is peripheral, underused to a fault.
"The Conspirator" is dusty and old-fashioned in spite of its speckle of modern leanings. It's also needlessly murky, the film stock creating a level of heavy grain and visual noise that occasionally loses sight of the human subjects behind it. Art direction and visual effects are better, presenting a picture of 19th-century D.C. that does the trick to convince of time travel, but they would have been much more attractive were the aesthetic picture not looking like the color of a dirty toilet bowl. The outcome of the court hearings and the events that come next are the best moments "The Conspirator" has to offer, but the viewer even then stands at a dramatic distance from the goings-on. Competent but hollow, the film is out of sight, out of mind the moment the end credits roll. What we take from it, then, are the facts, and one could get the same effect from doing a Google search.