The Conspirator is the first feature produced by The American Film Company, established by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts to tell historically-accurate stories from America’s past. If they are all going to be like The Conspirator, then count me in!
Although the movie, as many costume dramas do, gets a bit creaky at times — Law & Order: 1865 Edition! — the story it tells is unbelievably rich. The script, by former reporter and television writer (The Practice) James Solomon, relates the true tale of Mary Surratt, a woman tried for conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln, and of Frederick Aiken, the Union hero-turned-lawyer who defended her, with great drama and yet without departing from any facts in the historical record — at least that I could find in some cursory internet research.
I’ll wager you’ll be Googling Mary Surratt’s story too, after seeing this film, and wondering why you didn’t hear about it in history class. Surratt, played masterfully by Robin Wright, was a Confederate sympathizer who ran the boarding house where the John Wilkes Booth and his gang plotted to assassinate the President. She was made part of the conspiracy trial on questionable evidence, the movie plausibly supposing as bait to draw her son, John Surratt, another conspirator, out of hiding. Solomon, his co-screenwriter Gregory Bernstein, Wright and the director, Robert Redford, do a great job of keeping her guilt ambiguous, even as her own sincerity is never in doubt.
Meanwhile, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), her appointed defender, faces becoming a social outcast for simply providing the defense the law requires. He too, is not painted one-sidedly. His outrage at being forced to participate in a sham trial sometimes seems to compel him more than any moral or ethical principle. The historical record shows Aiken never practiced law again after this case, and the movie reveals why with devastating dramatic force.
Other than Wright, the performances did not move me. McAvoy seemed to be struggling with an American accent too much to fully play some key moments. (His fellow Brit Tom Wilkinson is perfect in the accent department, even nailing a slight Southern drawl, often a challenge for English actors. Colm Meaney, too, is imported from across the pond — perhaps the filmmakers were feeling they needed to borrow from the land of Merchant-Ivory for a period film.) Alexis Bledel and Justin Long, incapable of realistic performances in contemporary settings, are totally miscast in a film demanding a veneer of historical fidelity, but mercifully they are in the film very little. Evan Rachel Wood, meanwhile, is solidly convincing as the young daughter of Mary Surratt who wants to save her mother’s life but not betray her brother.
The production design is excellent, and according to the press packet, done with only three weeks prep and transported all the way to Savannah, Georgia, where most of the film was shot. However, perhaps due to the compressed pre-production or for budget reasons, the movie feels very confined. Even Lincoln’s assassination, for which an entire Ford’s Theater set was built, feels rushed. I do not know if Redford and his producers couldn’t afford to create a feeling of the sweep of history, or didn’t wish to. Likewise, d.p. Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects) uses a desaturated color palette meant to evoke autochrome photography, but which generally feels scummy. He and the rest of the filmmakers do do an excellent job, in a late scene, of recreating a famous photograph of execution of some of the conspirators. Although the screenwriters had full trial transcripts to work from and supposedly read diaries of the period, the dialogue seems to be pruned of fun antique turns of phrase, perhaps an over-zealous attempt to make the story ‘more accessible.’ It did make me realize what the best British costume dramas, especially the recent gritty Jane Eyre, get right.
While it doesn’t rise to the highest ranks of costume drama, The Conspirator is a truly promising start for The American Film Company, and the story is compelling enough for me to heartily recommend it, more than making up for the above-mentioned areas where I saw room for improvement. The movie addresses a critical issue, still current in discussions of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay: What rights of the accused should be suspended during wartime, if any? One historical trick that the movie doesn’t mention — Abraham Lincoln, often praised as one of the wisest Presidents, himself a lawyer, ordered the suspension of habeas corpus. Better than bringing that turbulent chapter of history to life, The Conspirator sheds light on our own. The movie left me shaken, wondering how we will be viewed when future generations look back on us.