James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken
Robin Wright as Mary Surratt
Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson
Danny Huston as Joseph Holt
Alexis Bledel as Sarah Weston
Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt
Justin Long as Nicholas Baker
Norman Reedus as Lewis Payne
Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton
Stephen Root as John Lloyd
Jonathan Groff as Louis Weichmann
Johnny Simmons as John Surratt
Toby Kebbell as John Wilkes Booth
Shea Whigham as Capt. Cottingham
Colm Meaney as David Hunter
James Badge Dale as William Hamilton
Chris Bauer as Major Smith
Jim True-Frost as Hartranft
Gerald Bestrom as Abraham Lincoln
John Michael Weatherly as George Atzerodt
Marcus Hester as David Herold
Directed by Robert Redford
After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a young defense lawyer who has been fighting for the Union in the Civil War, has been assigned to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman being tried for conspiracy in the case of the President’s murder. As Fred gets to know the woman, who had the misfortune of running the boarding house where the real conspirators met, he starts to think she’s being unfairly accused and being set an example, so he starts to take the case more seriously.
It may be debatable whether Robert Redford is one of our country’s most underrated filmmakers but he’s certainly one who tries to find interesting stories to tell in unique ways, and that’s certainly the case with “The Conspirator.” Instead of making a movie specifically about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, he decided to make a movie about the aftermath, which is why the actual assassination isn’t a climax that’s built up to, as much as something that acts as an introduction to the actual story.
With the scars from the Civil War still fairly fresh, the Union’s military tribunal are anxious to make an example of those responsible for Lincoln’s murder, and Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) gets caught in the crossfire merely because she runs the boarding house where the men behind Lincoln’s assassination had their planning sessions. Returning war hero and attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) finds himself assigned as public defender in Mary’s case by his boss (Tom Wilkinson), an unenviable task that creates an internal conflict, because while he wants to win the case, he feels likes a traitor to his country by doing so. It becomes more obvious his assignment may have been due to his inexperience when he’s faced in the courtroom by one of the country’s top prosecutors, played by Danny Huston.
It’s clear that historical accuracy was important to Redford’s telling of the story, but the movie still suffers from its slow pace, particularly in its first act as it sets up the trial by introducing far too many characters, many of whom have little to do with the actual story. Once it gets to the actual trial, some of the problems are smoothed out, also because the writing during the trial is better than the stilted dialogue in earlier scenes.
James McAvoy gives a particularly driven performance as a lawyer who realizes his client is innocent and suddenly has to go against the country he fought for in order to protect her. He still suffers slightly from the “Leonardo DiCaprio complex” where he still comes off too young for any adult role he plays, but he’s still very good. He’s only overshadowed by Wright, who gives another sterling performance that makes one wonder how she’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and outside the courtroom, the scenes between the two of them are the strongest, bringing a lot of emotion to an otherwise clinically-told story.
The performances by the rest of the ensemble cast are average at best with Evan Rachel Wood, playing Mary’s daughter, being the most guilty of overacting with her histrionics during the more dramatic sequences. Stephen Root shows up as a bumbling drunk the prosecution calls as their star witness, bringing some much-needed levity to the proceedings. Other then that, there is some serious miscasting like Justin Long who doesn’t even bother to change his normal delivery to fit into the 19th century setting. Alexis Bledel is the worst of the bunch giving a dreadful performance as Frederick’s girlfriend, a character who serves very little purpose in the overall story.
Maybe the biggest hurdle the movie has to overcome is that it doesn’t look very good with a weird muted look that takes some time to adjust to and an annoying sunlight glare throughout, which is nearly as distracting as the score that goes out of its way to overpower the dialogue at least in the first half.
The Bottom Line:
What could and should have been an unforgettable historic drama gets a bit lost along the way due to convoluted storytelling and a number of questionable directorial decisions.