A conspiracy full of holes

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Heartbreakingly average, director Robert Redford’s The Conspirator errs in the way so many films do, especially films about unsung pieces of American history. It focuses on the wrong character — in this case the white male, i.e. the “bankable” one, instead of the person the story’s really about.


On April 17, 1865, three days after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C., boarding house owner Mary Surratt, along with seven others, was arrested on charges of conspiracy to kill the president. Was this Confederate sympathizer an active participant in Booth’s deadly plot, or merely an acquaintance? What was her scheming son’s precise role in the events that threatened to bring down the nation?

The movie’s screenwriter, James Solomon, keeps Surratt herself at a remove from the main line of the action in what is, at heart, a courtroom drama. Surratt’s court defender in the military tribunal, Unionist Frederick Aiken, may have believed in Surratt’s innocence. Or he may have thought she was guilty. The conflicted Aiken becomes the so-called audience identification figure. This is frustrating, not because Aiken is inherently dull but because Surratt’s circumstances and psychological nooks and crannies are inarguably more dramatic.

With James McAvoy in the leading role, The Conspirator has an actor of considerable skill but uneven judgment. His Aiken comes off as a petulant fellow, anachronistically blasé (though McAvoy, in his beard, resembles a young Ulysses S. Grant). The story is told as one righteous man up against a stacked deck full of stony, steely faces determined to give a bloodthirsty post-Civil-War public a scapegoat. Redford’s ensemble is blessed with many fine character actors, chief among them Tom Wilkinson (as Aiken’s mentor, former Attorney General Reverdy Johnson), Colm Meaney (Gen. David Hunter) and Kevin Kline (war secretary Edwin Stanton). They provide the interpretive juice missing from Solomon’s stilted dialogue.

Redford’s peak achievement as a director, Quiz Show, had the benefit of a sharp, fast, verbally adroit screenplay. We’re in a more somber, stylistic realm here, but Redford struggles to locate a tone, a rhythm and reasons to justify so much emphasis on Aiken. As Surratt, Robin Wright lends a cryptic dignity to a mysterious historical figure. There is, however, a difference between a shadowy historical figure and a shadowy historical figure brought to life. Unlike The Assassin’s Accomplice, the book that inspired The Conspirator, the movie’s so intent on treating Surratt with dignity and restraint that it fails to make her interesting.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com