“Damn the rebels. Damn them all to hell,” cries Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, with Amish beard) upon learning of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. There are many ways to cinematically portray the past, and Robert Redford’s The Conspirator—concerning the aftermath of Honest Abe’s head shot—is history writ large and hoary. This is the kind of stiff, lurching history remaking preferred by the minds behind Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, with actors fundamentally incapable of doing period (Alexis Bledel! Justin Long with a mustache!) standing still on musty sets, loudly proclaiming declarative dialogue.
Which is somewhat of a shame given the relative unfamiliarity of The Conspirator’s subject. The story doesn’t revolve around John Wilkes Booth but rather Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the unfortunate mother of one of his accomplices. A bitter Southerner and devout Catholic, Surratt refuses to out her spawn’s guilt to the blood-thirsty prosecution (embodied by Kline’s Stanton and Danny Huston’s attorney, both conspicuously missing mustaches they would no doubt twirl). Assigned the unenviable task of defending the woman who all of D.C. wants to see hung as an example, inexperienced lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) slowly—but not that slowly—comes to empathize with the accused. The problem? Surratt has been denied a public trial, as the prosecution are a bunch of habeas corpus-suspending dicks.
Therein lies the tale’s thin connection to the present, or at least the previous administration: Lincoln’s assassination, in Re]\=ford’s estimation, is 9/11—an enemy attack on our soil—and the surrendering of basic civil liberties that follows equals the shameful road chosen by Cheney and company. Maybe, but that doesn’t excuse the artless presentation. James D. Solomon’s script looks backward with 20/20 hindsight, congratulating those on Surratt’s side and blandly demonizing those blinded by tragedy. Through flopsweat, McAvoy commits himself fully to an underdeveloped role, while Wright is a mere beatific martyr dressed in goth blacks. The climactic slow-mo shot of her plummeting on the gallows is the kind of cheese no Oscar-winning director ought to bust out, even the maker of Ordinary People and Lions for Lambs.