Midway through the period drama The Conspirator, I wondered: So what? Sure, it's a well-acted, well-designed film, and it tells a story many people probably don't know about Abraham Lincoln's assassination. But director Robert Redford isn't known for being shy about his politics, and I was still waiting for The Message. Then it came. The young defense lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) asks, "Why did I fight for my country if my rights aren't assured?" Later, someone observes, with even more succinctness, "In times of war, the law falls silent."
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, and it's certainly a good time to reflect on the struggles of that era (and to release a movie about them). But we're coming up on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, and it's also a good time to reflect on the fact that all these years later, detainees in the "war on terror" are still being held indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They're in limbo, and that doesn't sit well with fans of orderly, transparent legal systems.
Guantánamo hangs ominously over The Conspirator, but to his credit, Redford handles the theme delicately. The film mainly is an interesting legal drama, and it's also one of those movies about a reluctant hero who, confronted by the brutal truth, takes on the ruthless system.
McAvoy, most recently seen as another naf in another period drama, The Last Station, handles the transition adroitly. As the story gets under way, his Frederick is a Union Civil War hero who's embarking on a legal career in Washington, D.C. Then President Lincoln is shot, and the conspirators are rounded up. Frederick's boss (Tom Wilkinson) compels him to defend one of them, a boarding-house proprietor named Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). With the others, she is to be tried in a military court for the plot to kill the president, the vice president and the secretary of state.
Frederick doesn't want to defend her. His friends also don't want him to, and neither does his fiancée (Alexis Bledel). Mary is implicated in a heinous crime, though she denies any involvement. She's a Southerner, and as the war winds down, people in the Union capital view Southerners with deep suspicion. The case is at best a distraction for this professionally and socially ambitious lawyer, at worst a severe liability.
As Frederick proceeds with the case, helped by Mary's reluctant daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), he sees that Mary is trying to protect her son (Johnny Simmons), an associate of John Wilkes Booth. He also sees that the federal government, at the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), means to convict and execute Mary no matter what, because that is the politically desirable outcome. A legal showdown ensues.
It's a disturbing bit of history, and there is much I like in this sobering film about it. I'm especially moved by Wright's searing performance as Mary, a strong-willed woman of faith and a perhaps too-devoted mother. McAvoy is appealing as Frederick, a glib youth who is transformed when he confronts a horror perpetrated by his own government. McAvoy and Wright's scenes in her grim prison cell are tense and memorable. I'm less convinced by Bledel as the fiancée. The Gilmore Girls star's 19th-century diction sounds stilted, and the sight of little Rory Gilmore in a prim bonnet made me giggle at inappropriate moments. As Pauline Kael wrote of Alan Alda, "There is a price to be paid for being likable in a TV series week after week, year after year."
I like the period atmospherics, especially the gloom and paranoia that hang over Washington at the end of the war. But despite its grand and timely themes, the film falls back on too many clichés of courtroom dramas. Among them: members of a scandalized courtroom gallery who murmur ostentatiously. They made me think of that moment in The Man With Two Brains: "You may murmur all you like!" "Murmur! Murmur!"