The Conspirator | Film review
Robert Redford’s Lincoln assassination conspiracy
Less stodgy than Redford’s last film-lecture, Lions for Lambs (2007), The Conspirator benefits enormously from unfolding in a novel milieu: It’s set around Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, when a tremendous rush to blame and scapegoat made anyone who dared to question conventional wisdom a pariah. The subject is the real-life trial of Mary Surratt (Wright), the proprietress of a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices hatched a plot. She was certainly no Yankee, and while maintaining her innocence, said little to help her defense. But she may not have been guilty of anything other than association. If that sounds familiar, Redford all but flashes slides of Guantánamo during the prison and courtroom scenes.
The story is seen through the eyes of Surratt’s lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), who rues the way Surratt’s trial has been rigged. It’s sobering to be reminded that the trade-off between security and ideals is nothing new in American history, and this absorbing if absurdly heavy-handed movie offers plenty to think about, although the surprisingly cheap-looking production appears to have been shot on a high-school-stage replica of the Gangs of New York set. Still, most high schools don’t have casts like these; with his Cheneyesque turn as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Kline earns every head of lettuce he’s thrown.