Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.
I was in third grade, under the creepy Catholic tutelage of Sister Hermina (she refused to die!), and the lesson on Lincoln’s presidency had come to dramatic and shocking conclusion. Granted, those aren’t the words I would have used to describe it at the time, but I do recall feeling frustrated, confused, and angered at the tall, bearded man’s death.
So why open a film review with a reference to a grade school history lesson? Because the film in question, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, feels like a two-hour lecture on some of the very same material. Viewers learn about the coordinated assault against Lincoln and two members of his cabinet, the capture and conviction of those responsible, and their subsequent hangings for the crimes. While the material here is more detailed than the lesson taught by zombie nun it’s also presented dryly, without any real energy, emotion, or drama, and very much in the spirit of a made-for-television movie. It doesn’t help matters that Redford uses his directorial lectern to include some incredibly unsubtle and politicized comparisons to our own modern day battles between personal freedoms and national security.
It’s April 1865, and Mary Lincoln’s suggestion for a night out on the town is about to bite her on the ass. (“It’s called Our American Cousin… how bad can it be?” she reportedly told her husband minutes before the curtain lifted and the hammer fell.) An organized attack on the presidency consisting of three assailants is executed with mixed results. Lincoln is shot (and dies the following day), the Secretary of State is wounded, and the Vice President escapes unscathed as his would-be assassin chickens out at the last minute.
(At this point let’s pause to highlight an aspect that gets forgotten amidst the hub-bub of Lincoln’s assassination. The man sent to kill the Sec. of State found him debilitated and unconscious in bed and stabbed him, but his efforts failed and the Sec. of State lived. How do you fail at killing an immobile target?! Now imagine if this incompetent boob had swapped assignments with Booth…)
The nation, still reeling from the recently ended Civil War, falls into a frenzy over the president’s murder, and all but one of the conspirators are quickly arrested or killed in the process. John Surratt escapes to Canada, but his mother Mary (Robin Wright) who owns the boarding house where her son, Booth, and others reportedly planned the attack is arrested as a participant in the scheme and placed on trial. A young Union hero named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is forcibly assigned as her defense lawyer, and while he despises her alleged actions as any good Northerner would he’s appalled at the injustice being heaped upon her.
These injustices include a rigged trial, limited rights, and an incarceration that keeps her isolated from any friends or family including her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood). It seems the trial’s outcome is a foregone conclusion as the orders from Sec. of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) demand swift justice to appease and calm the US citizenry, so while Aiken struggles to defend his client he fears she may actually be innocent and is being used as a sacrificial scapegoat for the greater good. The case features more questions than answers, and his attempts at a defense result in him being labeled as a traitor by some and even barred from entering his favorite social club. Will these right-wing bastards stop at nothing?!
Everyone knows the end result, so the film focuses on the events of the trial leading up to Mary Surratt at the end of a rope. It’s a courtroom drama sans drama that uses this historical backdrop to ask (and answer) questions about the Constitution, civil rights, and the unconscionable use of military courts for US citizens. That last element offers no presumption of innocence to the accused and severely hinders any possible defense leaving Surratt and her compatriots with a one-way ticket to the gallows.
The film’s purpose is to apply this historical lesson to our own post 9/11 reality as a reminder that times of duress are when we most need to remain true and honorable as a nation and people. As Aiken states at one point, “This is a frightened country… you don’t have to scare us anymore.” The parallels to GW Bush’s treatment of prisoners of war and other terror suspects are clear, but they’re still repeated. Often. Redford’s last film as director, Lions For Lambs, was just as liberal in its motivations, but it featured deeper conversations on the subjects that helped propel the story and characters on an interesting path. There is no conversation here, only statements and speeches.
But even if the left-leaning commentary leaves you unfazed the film commits several apolitical sins as well. Chief among them are a bland, one-note script (by James Solomon) more interested in its message than in momentum or narrative and an overall sense that regardless of the cast this is a cheap and small production. Aiken learns a valuable lesson about his government, but while McAvoy’s eyes tell us how saddened he is by it all the biggest effect it has onscreen is his dismissal from the club and his fiancee’s (Alexis Bledel) embarrassment. We’re also told (in a montage scene occurring just ten minutes into the film) that Lincoln’s body traveled the country and “his train was mobbed at every stop,” yet the scene shows barely 25–30 people standing somberly around a train. The whole thing feels like a stage production.
The one area of the film that doesn’t embarrass all involved is the cast. Redford has acquired some stellar actors to help tell his boring tale including Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, and others. The exception to the praise here is Justin Long. Poor Justin Long. Some actors (and their faces) are simply inappropriate in a period film, and Long’s presence couldn’t have felt more anachronistic and out of place in 19th century America if he was shown having iPhone-sex with Drew Barrymore.
The Conspirator is a wasted opportunity in almost every regard aside from its cast. What could have been an exciting and engaging tale about the aftermath of Lincoln’s murder is instead a made-for-TV movie that really, really wants to teach you something super important about your government. Politics aside, the film lacks any real dramatic punch regarding Lincoln’s murder, Aiken’s awakening, or even Surratt’s guilt or fate. And if the viewer doesn’t care about what’s happening onscreen or who it’s happening to they may just want to skip this particular lecture and go see a nice play instead.
The Upside: It has a great cast; reminds viewers that John Wilkes Booth didn’t act alone
The Downside: With the exception of Robin Wright the cast is wasted; feels like a TV movie in scope and atmosphere; script wobbles between weak dialogue and heavy-handed arguments against the loss of personal freedoms and the mistreatment of war prisoners at Guantanamo(?); never feels dramatic, suspenseful, or important
On the Side: Remember that Quantum Leap episode where Sam was in the body of one of JFK’s bodyguards leading up to his assassination, but he fails to save the president’s life? But then Al tells him his mission was actually a success because in the original history Jackie had died too? Yeah, that was pretty cool.