James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson star in "The Conspirator," a… (Claudette Barius / Roadside…)
"The Conspirator" has several allies in its earnest but effective quest to make a forgotten corner of America's past come alive. Many of those were planned, including the sine qua non casting of Robin Wright in the title role, but perhaps the most potent was an unintentional accident of history itself.
The subject of this serious and seriously old-fashioned Robert Redford-directed film is an often overlooked aspect of an event every schoolchild knows about, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln less than a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant to end the Civil War.
But there was more going on during the night of April 14, 1865, than John Wilkes Booth's attack at Ford's Theater. An attempt was made on the life of Secretary of State William H. Seward and one was planned for Vice President Andrew Johnson as well. Eight people were arrested with conspiring in this broad plot, and the trial of the only woman in the group, Mary Surratt, an event with unexpected relevance to today, is at the heart of what's on-screen.
Given that this film is the first from a new entity, the American Film Co., specifically founded to produce "historically accurate" features, it is no surprise that exceptional care has been taken by production designer Kalina Ivanov, costume designer Louise Frogley and their crews to get both the general look of the period and the specific details of the actual events as close to real as possible. Even though the film ended up being expertly shot in Savannah, Ga., by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, you would swear you were in the Washington, D.C., of the period.
Just as planned, and just as successful, was the casting of the powerful Wright as Surratt, the mother of one of the conspirators and the operator of the Washington, D.C., boarding house where many of their meetings took place. She denied knowledge of the assassination, but the sense that she was the woman who "built the nest that hatched this plot" was not in her favor.
In fact, even her own inexperienced attorney, Frederick Aiken (a capable James McAvoy), is disposed to disbelieve her. Recently discharged as a captain in the Union Army, Aiken doesn't even want to take the case on but is persuaded to do so by his boss, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson with a Southern accent), who felt that someone with impeccable patriotic credentials was needed for the job.
Worried that handling Surratt's defense would be a betrayal of everything he fought for, Aiken is partly persuaded to overcome his doubts by the fortitude and dignity of an imprisoned woman who frankly tells him, "I am a Southerner, a Catholic, a devoted mother, but no assassin." In a similar fashion, the resolution and strength of Wright's unimpeachable performance makes the whole story seem flesh-and-blood real in a way that it would not otherwise be.
What motivates Aiken as much as Surratt's character, however, is that the patent unfairness of her trial before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court offends his sense of justice. With Surratt prohibited from testifying in her own defense and the government, in essence, making up the rules as it goes along, Aiken pleads with the opposition to see that "abandoning the Constitution is not the answer.... In our grief let us not betray our better judgment and take part in an Inquisition."
If these lines from James Solomon's script sound like an up-to-the-minute response to issues resonating in our contemporary judicial system in the wake of Sept. 11, it's instructive to note that he began working on the screenplay in 1993, well before the World Trade Center attack.
In fact, Solomon said in a recent interview with Cineaste magazine, he was as surprised as anyone "to see events unfold in a manner so similar to what was already in my script — an unprecedented act of terror, hundreds rounded up, the establishing of a military tribunal."
Behind the government's ruthless action was Lincoln's friend, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Kevin Kline was an unexpected choice for a rigid, steely individual who never doubted he was right, but the actor handles the chance flawlessly. Also a pleasant surprise is Evan Rachel Wood, more grounded than usual and appropriately emotional as Surratt's daughter Anna.
Though attempts have been made to portray attorney Aiken as a kind of surrogate son to Surratt (her conspirator son John having fled), the personal dramas of this story, which include Aiken's relationships to his sweetheart and his friends, are the least involving, most by-the-numbers part of the story.
"The Conspirator" is first, last and always a political drama, and, Wright's performance aside, it is the play of events of history that most holds our interest. A celebrated line from Cicero, quoted in the film, sums things up: "In times of war, the law falls silent." It was true in Roman times, in Mary Surratt's, and, regrettably, it remains so in ours as well.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violent content
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In general release