Even for those who sympathize with director Robert Redford’s politics, “The Conspirator” is a pedantic, flat and overlong affair, not entirely unlike watching two hours of C-Span.
The timing for the release of “The Conspirator,” about the trial of the only woman implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, couldn’t be much better. Not only does it open on the anniversary of Lincoln’s death, it comes just as the Obama administration has failed in keeping the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed out of the hands of the military.
And that’s exactly the issue at the heart of Redford’s latest film, which stars James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the man whose job it was defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) against charges of being party to the plot to assassinate Lincoln. The constitutionality of such a thing has been argued on TV, online, in the newspapers, bars and homes ever since the Bush Administration started housing “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay.
The film opens, conveniently enough, on the evening of Lincoln’s murder, and while it is unquestionably among the darkest days in the nation’s history, it is not the crux of the film, yet Redford tries to play it for maximum emotion, with swelling, overwrought strings and shocked crowds. So little else happens in the film, making the snail’s pace extra grating. Most every scene runs five to ten seconds too long, with Redford showing a strong fondness for the overlong establishing shot.
Wright is her usual excellent self, albeit in a mostly one-note role of the aggrieved mother, as is Tom Wilkinson as Sen. Reverdy Johnson, the man who forces Aiken to take on Surratt as a client. And Danny Huston is great as Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General prosecuting the case. Unfortunately, James McAvoy isn’t up to the task of leading the film. McAvoy gave a brilliant performance in “The Last King of Scotland,” but here he lacks the force of will to carry “The Conspirator.”
If you haven’t reached a conclusion on this issue by now, you probably don’t care, and you’re certainly not inclined to see this film. If you agree with Redford that trying civilians in a military court is wrong, the story is an echo chamber. And if you believe that civilians should be tried before tribunals, this film certainly isn’t persuasive enough to change your mind.