Redford's 'The Conspirator' teaches but doesn't engage

2011-04-15T00:00:00Z 2011-04-15T07:48:48Z Redford's 'The Conspirator' teaches but doesn't engageBY JOE WILLIAMS • Post-Dispatch Film Critic • joewilliams@post-dispatch.com • 314-340-8344 stltoday.com

The world is rarely changed by disgruntled loners. Diligent historians discover that passionate believers recruit comrades to do their dirty work.

There is no question that the murder of Abraham Lincoln was a conspiracy, but contemporary Americans know little about the particulars. The makers of the sturdy drama "The Conspirator" do a public service by illuminating a dark corner of American history, yet they would rather pontificate than educate or engage.

In a hurried prelude that's the liveliest section of the film, we see assassins fan out across Washington while the city is celebrating the end of the Civil War. Actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth is the only one of the conspirators to kill his target — President Lincoln, in the balcony of Ford's Theater.

Yet we learn little about Booth. This is a movie about Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran a boarding house in Washington where many of the assassins' plans were hatched, and how her trial was a test of the Constitution. Surratt was arrested within days of the assassination and tried alongside several of the unrepentant plotters.

Although Surratt was a civilian, it was a military trial at the insistence of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). Surratt's defense is handed to Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a young Union Army veteran with a legal background. Although Aiken insists that every American citizen is entitled to a jury trial, he seems to be convinced of his client's guilt.

So while the trial we watch is undoubtedly true to the transcripts, the result is that the movie is mummified. The stonewalling client remains a mystery. Instead of a dramatic showdown with a moral center, the trial is a platform for a debate about due process with obvious parallels to the Guantanamo tribunals.

Instead of entertaining us, director Robert Redford offers us a handsome history lesson that's as dry as a hardtack biscuit.


"The Conspirator"

Two stars (out of four) • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:03 • Content Some violence

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