Director Robert Redford examines the trial of the first woman put to death by the Unites States Government through the eyes of a reluctant young lawyer (James McAvoy) who ended up ruining his career with search for justice in a court that wanted nothing more than a quick conviction.
The story concerns Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who was charged as a co-conspirator in the assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom) and Secretary of State William Seward and the attempted assassination of Vice President Andrew Johnson (Dennis Clark).
Redford assembles a first-rate cast to tell an engaging story, but it never reaches the level of storytelling you would expect. Although the screenplay by James D. Solomon showcases the how Suratt was railroaded into the gallows and strongly suggests her innocence, the film never takes a definitive stand on her guilt. This means we aren’t subject to Suratt’s experiences but only those filtered through those of her lawyer.
If the film has a failing in how it’s presented it’s that Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is the center of the story, not Mary Suratt. This would be fine in a run-of-the-mill courtroom whodunit, but the film wants first and foremost to be a historical drama. McAvoy makes the best of this with a strong performance, but his story (unless it goes beyond the trial) isn’t as intriguing as that of Mary Suratt. And what little we see of Aiken not tied to the case, such as his relationship with Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), is far less interesting than what his happening inside the courthouse.
There are many scenes which also feel more like a dress rehearsal of a play rather than a polished theatrical film. In their early scenes it’s obvious that some actors are still not comfortable in the skin of characters. It doesn’t help that some of the casting is truly bizarre. Although McAvory, Penn and Evan Rachel Wood all give great performances some of the smaller roles are filled by actors who seem overwhelmed by a period piece. Justin Long is the most perplexing example. He’s a funny guy, and a good actor, but he’s too far out of his element here.
The two-disc set includes commentary from director Robert Redford about why he made this particular movie and the steps in making the film look and feel historically accurate, a feature-length documentary “The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln,” a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the film, a commercial for the American Film Company, the film’s trailer, and a series of “Witness History” featurettes on the historical background and making of the film.
The Conspirator is a good movie with a handful of great performances which never reaches its full potential. It’s still worth a look, but given the pedigree of its story, director, and cast (I didn’t even mention Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, and Colm Meaney), it could have been much more.