The Conspirator centers on the real-life trial of Mary Surratt, who ran a Washington boarding house that was regularly visited by men involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Among them: Surratt's son and the assassin himself, John Wilkes Booth.
The government charges Mary, played by Robin Wright, with participating in the plot — a crime punishable by death. But at this time of heightened emotions, and with so many people rounded up, there will be no jury of her peers. A military tribunal will hear her case, and normal rules of evidence won't apply. It falls to Surratt's lawyer, Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy, to argue not merely for his client but also for a principle: that the U.S. Constitution must apply to everyone, guilty or innocent, in times of peace or peril.
It would be easy to call The Conspirator a dramatized civil-liberties lecture. Director Robert Redford is not a man who keeps his political convictions to himself, and his agenda could hardly be plainer.
Because Redford makes the defendants' legal case, it's important to say he does nothing to make them admirable. They're fools and monsters. The Conspirator opens with Lincoln's assassination and the mayhem that follows. On his makeshift deathbed across from Ford's Theater, the president is barely glimpsed — we see only his shoes and the bowls of blood carried from the room. We want vengeance for this crime as much as the mobs onscreen.
Wright's Mary isn't likable, either, at least at first. She admits to being a Confederate sympathizer, but is otherwise so starkly private, so withholding, that we can't blame Aiken for hating her. He fought in the Union army, and he didn't want her case, which has made him a social pariah. He wants to know about the son she's protecting who's still on the lam.
"My son was in Canada that day," she says.
"Can you prove that?" Aiken asks.
"I received a letter on April 14, same day as the assassination," she says. "Sent from Montreal."
"Where is this letter?" he asks.
"I don't know," she replies. "You're so blind with hatred, Mr. Aiken, you can't even see the truth. Yes, my son hated the North. We all did. How can a Southerner feel anything but bitterness toward your side? But my son did not conspire to kill your President. He conspired to kidnap him."
What did Mary know and when did she know it? It's hard to say. Wright makes her vividly uncommunicative, torn in too many directions to make anything but her essential decency plain.
Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter, Anna, who hasn't been allowed to see or speak to Mary, and you believe they're related: They have the same mixture of fear and anger, the same tightness. Because both actresses give such tough, unsentimental performances, the moment when Anna testifies in court and soldiers line up to block Mary from her from view is so cruel it's devastating.
Where Redford and screenwriter James Solomon fail is in making a compelling case for the other side — the one that says the survival of the nation takes precedence over individual rights. The spokesman for that view, who's transparently eager to orchestrate Mary's hanging, is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline.
"It's not justice you're after, it's revenge," says Aiken.
"I would never go to such lengths of vengeance," says Stanton. "But to ensure the survival of this nation, I would do anything. Mary Surratt was a party to the most grievous crime in our history. Necessity demands that she be given a swift, sure and harsh sentence. I too hold sacred our rights, counselor — but they count not at all if our nation ceases to exist."
McAvoy carries that scene — he gives real dramatic urgency to what might have played like lecture notes. But Kline is as bad as his material, as only a liberal playing a reactionary can be.
This conflict, between civil liberties and national security, is endlessly current, and in 1865, with the nation barely recovered from being torn asunder, the national-security side deserves a spokesman of stature.
It doesn't get it. The Conspirator is a graceful film with a heartbreaking climax, but instead of a great and timeless drama, it's just a powerful melodrama. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.