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The Lincoln Lawyering

MOVIE REVIEW
The Conspirator (2011)

The-conspirator-mary-surratt-robin-wright-penn
Claudette Barius/Roadside Attractions

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” suffers from some of the the same wooden, point-and-shoot didactic dramatics that characterized the Academy Award winner’s “Lions for Lambs.” Yet it offers a valuable look at an iconic historical event from a never-before-seen perspective, molded to an evocative portrait of high-society Washington D.C. on edge in the wake of the Lincoln assassination.

The Savannah, Ga.-shot production stars Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, the lone female co-conspirator tried in the murderous April 14, 1865 plot that shook the country and irrevocably altered its future. Subject to a hostile military trial with public opinion turned firmly against her, Surratt faced a losing battle in the bid to clear her name, aided only by young attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), recently returned from service in the Union Army.

The film, written by James D. Solomon, persuasively argues not for Surratt’s definite innocence but that the evidence did not exist for conviction. It’s a portrait of a classic judicial railroading, as Surratt was regarded with sneering condescension by her judges while Aiken’s case was blatantly subverted by the unabashedly biased tribunal.

The contemporary allegorical overtones in Surratt’s story, the allusions to the fear that predominates this age of Islamic terror and constantly perceived existential threats are obvious enough. A Surratt conviction mandated on high (by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, here played by Kevin Kline) is both a social salve for a revenge-seeking populace and a way to show the government’s strength during a trying, uncertain time.

Although the film adheres to a worn, old-fashioned aesthetic centered on straightforward courtroom scenes, stagy reenactments and sermonizing about American values, it’s rife with sharp performances. Ms. Wright, a picture of strength and inner-security as Surratt, and Mr. McAvoy, earnest without overdoing it, are joined by Mr. Kline (as a sinister Stanton), Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney and Evan Rachel Wood. Only the presence of the hangdog Justin Long, as Aiken’s best friend, feels anachronistic.

With scenes set in stuffy social clubs, Surratt’s bleak prison cell and the gas-lit streets of the nervous capitol, the film offers an immersive depiction of a city on edge. Mr. Redford gains real dramatic mileage from the picture’s focused portrait of the ways Aiken, a war hero and toast of the town, is gradually blackballed by those that once celebrated him.

The filmmaker benefits from the earnestness with which he recalls this seminal event of the earliest days of Reconstruction, a key historical era that’s often subsumed by the Civil War in popular culture, but is in many respects no less essential to comprehend if one seeks to understand the United States today. The visuals are muddy, the lighting drab, but the period still comes to life.

Since its debut at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, critics have widely derided “The Conspirator,” deeming it a film more apt for history class than a fun night at the movies. In a just world, it would instead be commended for it.

THE CONSPIRATOR

Opens on April 15 in the United States and on July 1 in Britain.

Directed by Robert Redford; written by James Solomon; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Craig McKay; production design by Kalina Ivanov; costumes by Louise Frogley; produced by Mr. Redford, Greg Shapiro, Brian Falk, Robert Stone and Bill Holderman; released by Roadside Attractions (United States) and Universal Pictures (Britain). Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Kevin Kline (Secretary Edwin M. Stanton), Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt), Tom Wilkinson (Reverdy Johnson), Alexis Bledel (Sarah), Danny Huston (Joseph Holt), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker), Colm Meaney (Gen. David Hunter), James Badge Dale (William Hamilton), Johnny Simmons (John Surratt), Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichman) and Stephen Root (John Lloyd).

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