Set in the months after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, The Conspirator follows the consequences of the fatal shot at Ford's Theater — specifically, the trial of Mary Surratt, owner of a D.C. boarding house. Surratt was presented before a military tribunal as the den mother in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.
Robin Wright plays Surratt, but seen through the limited vantage of her defense, she's not the film's star. Maryland Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) decides that no Southerner can represent Surratt without compromising the case, so he hands her over to Union Army vet Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). All of 28 and vainly trying to pass as older under a sparse, reddish beard, dubious ex-blue-belly Aiken becomes convinced that Surratt's trial is nothing short of a railroading, headed toward judicial murder on the gallows.
Square-jawed and knotty-fingered, with the look of having been dragged around by life, Wright fits her part and period, but McAvoy's Aiken is the one who carries, and stumbles with, the film. Aiken is chosen to represent Surratt in part for his wartime credentials — he's introduced bleeding on a History Channel battlefield — but nothing in McAvoy's pushover peevishness suggests knowledge or command of the burdensome memory of war. This would matter little if there were any transference from Surratt, if Aiken absorbed her toughness through their partnership, but such gravitas never arrives. The story is one of idealistic youth speaking truth to power, with Kevin Kline's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton the archetypal cynical insider. But after Aiken's closing argument, you're mostly stirred to watch Danny Huston's prosecuting attorney break him.
Showing a government system as it responds to an attack, The Conspirator is Redford's first film since the awful — and similarly themed — Lions for Lambs (2007). Redford, never the subtlest of dialectic filmmakers, has now become the browbeating professor he played in Lions, dotting rhetorical i's for the audience in every scene ("In times of war, the law falls silent").
The Conspirator fails to blow dust off its period. The historically obscure figure of Aiken is hardly vivified. Courtroom scenes are stagey, with cued-up gasps and canned laughter. Redford shows some flair with assassinations and executions, but the most done to enliven the dialogue is having Aiken and Johnson talk while the latter is using the bathroom. After the first reel, there's rarely any sense of a larger polis outside the museum-room interiors, uniformly lit by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel in clear, streaming shafts of perpetual-noon sunlight. The film is a burdensome two hours, even as some scenes seem to have gone missing, like the brushed-past plot point with Shea Whigham as a witness for the defense suborned by the prosecution, wasted along with Alexis Bledel and Evan Rachel Wood.
Convicted through, essentially, a single testimony, Surratt was hanged with three others in July 1865. There is a famous photo in which you can see her swinging to the left, bound up in a black dress. Surratt may have been innocent, but this is beyond movies to prove.