Civil War legal drama better history than politics. 

James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson

James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson

The title character in The Conspirator, the latest directorial effort from Robert Redford, is Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the United States government.

The conspiracy Surratt (Robin Wright Penn) was alleged to be a party to was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Her connection to the crime was based on the Washington, D.C., boarding house she ran, which was frequented by those who hatched and perpetrated the plot, including assassin John Wilkes Booth and Surratt's own son, John.

The film opens with a terrific set-piece sequence depicting the night of the assassination from multiple perspectives — following it from the iconic images of the crime at the Ford's Theatre to the private residence where Lincoln's body was taken, carried through a throng of onlookers.

From there The Conspirator jumps forward to Surratt's trial. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) wants her convicted. Civil libertarian and Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a former U.S. attorney general and a Lincoln pallbearer, steps to her unpopular defense but turns the case over to his reluctant young associate, Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), when Johnson fears his Southern background will impact the case.

The Conspirator has the same upright, earnest feel as previous Redford films such as Quiz Show or The Milagro Beanfield War, and Lions for Lambs. On the surface, it's a historical period piece, but in intent it's a civics lesson with clear contemporary resonance: the federal government's response to a domestic attack; civilians tried in military court; due process and other constitutional guarantees subverted by executive-branch officials citing national security concerns; and, more tacitly, a national thirst for vengeance.

The unseen president (in this case, Andrew Johnson) is mostly on the sidelines of decision-making as theoretically subservient officials (Stanton, portrayed here as a precursor to Cheney or Rumsfeld) assert control. Kline's performance and Stanton's characterization are too wooden and one-note to make this scenario at all provocative. The filmmakers can't bear to give Stanton's arguments any juice or gravity, and, as a result, there's not much at stake, intellectually, for the film audience.

The Conspirator works less as a cautionary tale than as a reasonably well-depicted and well-designed — Civil War-era Washington feels convincing — re-creation of a too-little-known passage in the country's back pages. The Conspirator may have different designs, but it's more likely to appeal to your inner history buff than to your desire for political ammunition.

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The Conspirator
Rated PG-13 · 122 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.conspiratorthemovie.com
Director: Robert Redford
Writer: James Solomon
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Groff, Danny Huston, Kevin Kline, Toby Kebbell and Norman Reedus

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