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How many Civil War stories are there left to be thrown on screen? Lots, probably, but good ones? The plot to assassinate Lincoln is an inviting premise, but a gripping version of the events immediately following the Civil War hasn’t been seen since, well, The Birth of a Nation.
Directed by Robert Redford from a script by James D. Solomon—a television writer making his big-screen jump—The Conspirator presses the case of Mary Surratt, the only woman among the eight charged with planning Lincoln’s murder. (John Wilkes Booth would be No. 9, but he was dispatched without the need for a trial.) With Redford comes lots of other Hollywood muscle: Robin Wright as Surratt, James McAvoy as her hesitant lawyer, Frederick Aiken; Evan Rachel Wood as her daughter; Tom Wilkinson as the phlegmatic Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson; Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; and Justin Long as Aiken’s war buddy whose only purposes seem to be sporting a limp and the fakest moustache in recent history.
The money shot—the assassination—comes five minutes in, and for the next two hours, it’s Law & Order: Political Grandstanding Unit. Except Dick Wolf never produced anything this placid. A surprise witness, a motion to recommit—-surely Redford could have given something to spice up this Reconstruction-era courtroom procedural. The best we get is a jury of Union Army greybeards led by Colm Meany, though to be fair, said beards are quite epic.
Oh, those beards. And the dusty sets, starchy wool suits for the men, corsets and hoop dresses for the women—it’s all So. Damn. Accurate. It’s history come to life! Just like that all those grade-school field trips to Old Sturbridge Village. The Conspirator is as thrilling as a butter-churning exhibit, or a whale watch, or the visitors’ center at the Grand Canyon.
The performers do their best to animate the story, but not even an actress as strong as Wright can lift the flat storytelling. Never one to phone it in, Wright imbues Surratt with unflinching loyalty to the Confederacy and to the son who too readily abandons her to federal captors. McAvoy, as Aiken, a figure largely unseen in the annals of history, goes from resisting his client to becoming a full-throated voice for the condemned, complete with the occasional shot of him drinking alone after a rough day in court. (A requisite for any legal procedural.)
Redford’s analogies are as easy to spot as Long’s fake moustache. Surratt’s prison cell is grimy and dank; her trial is a set-up by the prosecutor and the military tribunes sitting in judgment. Clearly the audience is being directed to think of Guantánamo Bay and a questionable system of justice. As the imperious Edwin Stanton, Kline puts on his best Donald Rumsfeld impression. Though with lines like “Keep the vice president away from the whisky” and a complete dismissal of the War Secretary’s place in the constitutional pecking order, this Stanton is as much Rummy as he is former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who declared himself “in charge” after the attempted slaying of Ronald Reagan.
But for all of Redford’s Camelot liberalism, there’s still plenty in The Conspirator targeted toward the other side. Reverdy Johnson, the senator from a slave state that sided with the Union, gives one romantic speech about the Constitution after another, so inflamed that if the filmmakers wanted to trample on history they’d have him waving a Gadsden flag. Wilkinson gives another serviceable performance as an old lion of American politics. (He’s also inhabited Benjamin Franklin, James Baker, and Joe Kennedy.) McAvoy is a strict constructionist by the end, too. No labels, right?
The Conspirator is the debut for The American Film Company, a new concern dedicated to producing historical dramas with accurate depictions of pivotal moments in American history. The concept was reminiscent of The Invention of Lying, a forgettable vehicle for Ricky Gervais set in a world without fiction or creativity. The film-industry-within-a-film, therefore, consisted of old men lecturing from history textbooks. It was all quite bland until Gervais saved the world by spinning a yarn.
The producers of The Conspirator might have been inspired to retell history with “the power of film to engage.” But history is, at times, quite boring. Isn’t that why we go to the movies?