On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when a cowardly attack crippled America, the taste for revenge was bitter. The federal government faced its greatest challenge: keeping a fragile nation from unraveling with blood lust while crafting a measured response of justice. The U.S. Constitution, habeas corpus and common law hung in the balance.
But before that, there was the evening of April 14, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated as part of a plot to also kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The latter survived and Johnson's would-be assassin lost his nerve and fled. Those events are in American history books. The conspirators are not.
Oscar-winning director Robert Redford (Ordinary People, Quiz Show) chose the unlikely figure of Mary Surratt for the centerpiece of his newest effort, The Conspirator. Robin Wright plays Surratt, whose son John was part of the plot to kill Lincoln. She was convicted of treason and hanged, becoming the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.
If Redford had trusted filmgoers to find their way through the delicate themes, The Conspirator would have worked as a fine historical drama. Instead, attempts to stretch the parallel to the Bush administration's post-9/11 actions come across as ham-fisted and, at times, inappropriate.
Wright's performance is believable and her interpretation of Surratt comes across as pure, but James McAvoy (Atonement) as Frederick Aiken, Surratt's defender, stumbles through callow courtroom oratories usually heard in daytime soap operas. Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson and even Kevin Kline look as if they'd rather be in another movie.
The Conspirator is the first production from American Film Company, a new movie studio owned by online-trading billionaire Joe Ricketts. Following last fall's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie was bought for distribution by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, but they sat on the film for a full half-year, probably unsure of how to market such an odd product.
Redford fails to deliver something that he should know how to do better than most: entertainment. For all of its heady composition, The Conspirator never breaks through as an enjoyable movie-going experience. Its sterile, downtrodden pace never picks up, and it feels as old as a history book that hasn't been updated since Lincoln's assassination.