Despite my long aversion to films “based on true events,” I so wanted “The Conspirator,” Robert Redford’s latest direction job, to be a great and powerful one.
On the surface, the story — the trial of Mary Surratt, one of the people tried and hanged for plotting to kill Abraham Lincoln and his top Cabinet members — appealed to my fondness for American history. And the marketing was clever enough, too: opening the film on the anniversary of Lincoln’s death (April 15), and just past the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War (April 12).
So I plunked down my 10-and-a-quarter at Sierra Vista in Clovis and waited for the greatness.
I’m still waiting. Not that anyone would expect a thriller, but I walked away underwhelmed, at times supremely bored and feeling that this member of the choir had been beaten over the head for two hours. It’s a relentlessly bleak film, and besides, you know the end result going in. Sure, it’s essentially a film about a trial (albeit a milestone one; a law was passed banning civilians being tried by military tribunals after this). But what happens between points A and B doesn’t have to drag on and on. Perhaps this film, despite its striking big-screen visuals, would play much better on a small screen.
The quick premise, at least about as streamlined and glossed as the film’s true story: Surratt (Robin Wright), a widowed D.C. boarding house owner, is accused of conspiring with eight others in the shooting of the president, the aborted attack on Vice President Andrew Johnson and the vicious stabbing of bedridden Secretary of State William Seward and two of his kin on April 14, 1865, just five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
Surratt is a devout Catholic and a Southern sympathizer. Her only crime, so it seems, is having housed three of the conspirators — Lewis Powell (aka Paine), George Atzerodt and David Herold — who hold meetings behind closed doors with her son, John Jr. (Johnny Simmons), and with John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbel), the renowned actor from America’s most prominent theatrical family. And John Surratt, deeply disturbed that Booth’s original plot to kidnap the president has become assassination instead, bolts for Canada a few days beforehand.
The film, as written by James D. Solomon, dispenses with the history we know already with the flash and speed of a 4X button on a DVD player: Conspirators meet and plot and head their separate ways. Booth heads to Ford’s Theatre, Herold takes Powell to Seward’s house, Atzerodt goes to Johnson’s. Booth shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, breaks a leg and flees; Powell stabs Seward; Atzerodt chickens out; Lincoln is moved to a boarding house across the street; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), Lincoln’s closest adviser, takes command at the house. Lincoln’s death is told in a series of headlines; Booth and Herold are tracked down to a Virginia barn, where Herold surrenders and Booth is shot dead; Lincoln is brought home to Illinois to be buried.
And that brings us to late April. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an inexperienced attorney, is saddled with defending Surratt by his boss, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a Maryland senator and former attorney general under Zachary Taylor. Aiken, who was a heroic colonel for the Union in the war, is appalled and, like much of the country in the ensuing wave of grief, believes she’s guilty. But it’s his job to defend her, and soon, the young novice finds himself thrown defenseless into not a lion’s cage, but a whole savannah of lions.
The all-powerful Stanton has stacked the tribunal, headed by Gen. David Holt (Colm Meaney) and including one of Lincoln’s pallbearers. The defendants are not allowed to speak in their own defense. Anytime Aiken objects, it’s overruled. Anytime the shrewd prosecutor, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), objects, it’s sustained. Witnesses for the defense seem to magically change their stories as if guided by some unseen hand — the most damning being Louis Weichmann (Jonathan Groff), a friend of John Surratt and a lodger at the house, whom Mary had described as “like a son.” When Surratt’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) is brought in to testify, three soldiers form a wall in front of her mother so they can’t see each other. Stanton, in the name of preserving the fragile postwar union, wants this over with and fast, and he wants heads — or at least necks.
You go into a Redford film fully expecting some political message. And you’re not disappointed. Ten minutes in, the movie is silently tugging at you and jumping up and down and screaming “GITMO! GITMO!” at you. Surratt is a stand-in for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, another civilian set to face a tribunal for his part in a crime that deeply and emotionally rocked the country. Aside from Surratt, all eight of the other conspirators are shackled, kept in solitary and forced to wear hoods. Playing the combined role of Cheney and Rumsfeld — and, for nostalgia’s sake, the ghost of Al “I’m in charge here” Haig — is Stanton.
And as abhorrent as I find the government’s treatment of Mohammed and several others at Guantanamo — besides questionable legality, as well as matters of torture, it implies a serious mistrust of our civilian judicial system to do the right thing — I found myself thinking, “Alright, already, Bob! You’ve made your point! You’re drawing historical parallels! I get it!” And then it continues for the next couple hours, punctuated by moments of nothing, followed by occasional long moments of nothing, with an infrequent court outburst to liven things up, though not by much.
And Redford and Solomon use tired old cinematic tricks to drive home — again, incessantly — the good guys-vs.-bad guys angle, which is as far from simplistic as it’s portrayed. Surratt is, for the most part, bathed in light amid the gloom of the Washington Armory — the sainted, pious martyr who’s seemingly only guilty of the maternal instinct of wanting to protect her son. All that’s missing is an actual halo. And Aiken is streamlined into a two-dimensional, cliched, wide-eyed and idealistic film lawyer who loses a great deal — his girlfriend, his friends, membership in the most exclusive club in town — in the name of pursuing justice. After having his personal life come crashing down on him one night, he’s seen walking down a cobblestone street, and the reflection of the light off the stones, seemingly passing through his legs, makes him appear spectre-like.
There are a couple of terrible miscasts here: Kebbel’s Booth, a cardboard-standup interpretation of an angry and fiery man, looks way too frighteningly much like Borat, and while the real-life John Surratt was not very good-looking and a bit older — he ended up in Rome as a papal guard before being captured two years later — Simmons looks too much like an adorable young moppet who just got past the age of being an altar boy. But some of the performances are well played, given the material. Wright plays Mary Surratt with a world-weariness, but with an extreme devotion to her family and a decided religious fervor. Kline, unrecognizable as a ringer for the real-life Stanton, plays his character as you would have imagined him from historical readings: strong, shrewd, brusque and beyond cunning. McAvoy, as mentioned, is reduced to two dimensions by the script, but he makes do well enough.
Solomon has had TV court drama experience, as a story editor on “The Practice” who also wrote one episode. But that show was full of explosive moments and taut writing. The relative inaction here, combined with the more languid pace of life a century and a half ago, is magnified by the size of the screen. And that’s a shame because the visuals are befitting an epic, details both big (the panoramic views of mid-19th-century Washington, with lots of grass and a stub of a Washington Monument) and small (the historical accuracy used for the prison, the gallows, the fashion and hairstyles; the atmosphere of the elegant streets; the hucksters selling Lincoln memorabilia outside the prison during the trial).
The verdict: “The Conspirator” strives for grandeur and winds up being guilty of attempting to bore you to death.