By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Homeland security and its costs in freedom isn't a modern dilemma, according to Robert Redford's engrossing historical drama The Conspirator. We've been down this contentious road before, propelled by suspicion and vengeance after a national tragedy.
Six score and 16 years before 9/11, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln panicked Americans in the Civil War's wake. Quickly exposed as anti-Union terrorists, suspects who weren't killed were captured then railroaded through military tribunals to the gallows. They were guilty, after all, and the nation needed closure.
The Conspirator is about one of those prisoners, Mary Surratt, played with stoic grace by Robin Wright. Mary owned the boarding house where her son John (Johnny Simmons) and others — including trigger man John Wilkes Booth — schemed to kill Lincoln, his vice president and a cabinet member. She "built the nest that hatched the plot," as one accuser claims.
Mary firmly denies any knowledge of the conspiracy but as a Confederate sympathizer shows no lack of contempt for the government. The Conspirator isn't concerned as much with Mary's guilt or innocence as the manner in which she was convicted and deprived of due process to become the first woman executed in the United States. Redford examines a footnote and sees history repeating itself in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Yet The Conspirator isn't merely a pensive liberal screed like Redford's Lions for Lambs. At its core this is an absorbing courtroom drama and a splendid period piece, obviously well-researched on both counts. It's closer in spirit to his Quiz Show, in which truth and ethics are resisted during an era-defining event.
The conscience of The Conspirator is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Army veteran turned attorney at first reluctantly defending Mary in court. Frederick believes in due process and is stunned by the tribunal's constant abridgement of Mary's rights, on direct orders from the White House. Frederick must defend his client and the Constitution against a pit bull prosecutor (Danny Huston).
Screenwriter James D. Solomon keeps the legal wrangling digestible, while resisting the urge to make Mary into a martyr or Frederick into her noble crusader. Wright and McAvoy return the favor with performances that feel completely within the period, with nothing overplayed for dramatic effect. Like Redford they realize the material is strong enough to simply let the story tell itself.
There are also juicy turns by Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Cheney/Rumsfeld of the piece, who places national security above the constitutional freedoms of a few, and Tom Wilkinson as Frederick's mentor and a realist about Mary's chances for a fair trial. Through Mary's daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) we learn much about the defendant's steely character, and thankfully no romance emerges with Frederick.
The Conspirator draws its parallels to post-9/11 America too broadly at times, and Frederick's personal life imposes often enough to make the running time a tad long. But Redford proves that at 75 he can still choose meaningful projects and deliver them with intelligence.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.