Review: The Conspirator
For all of his classic roles and causes, Robert Redford remains the crusader from All the President’s Men, skulking around Washington, D.C., in the middle of the night. The Conspirator, Redford’s new film as director (remember, he does that too), strains for timeliness: a terrorism courtroom drama with Guantánamo intimations, even if the moment is 1865’s fragile post–Civil War peace rocked by a gunshot in a theater. But who’s being fooled? We’re really back in the mess of Watergate as James McAvoy’s tireless lawyer knocks on judges’ doors for desperate stays of execution, and the truth dangles just out of reach. (As with Quiz Show, this is the kind of movie Redford most enjoys making.) There’s no Deep Throat this time, but Tom Wilkinson does his best Ben Bradlee as a hawkish legal mentor, while Kevin Kline coos menacingly as Lincoln’s Nixonian war secretary, Edwin Stanton, a man seeking to hang prisoners out of political expediency. It all seems a little forced.
Most of all, the movie lacks a compelling defendant (apart from liberty itself): The real-life Mary Surratt, mother to one of the assassination plotters, was most likely railroaded into guilt by association. But as played by the wan Robin Wright, she’s way too cryptic and quiet—merely an empty vessel for Redford to fill with his lefty sympathy. Where is the fire of a wrongly convicted woman? Where are her showstopping speeches? James Solomon’s script plays it coy, even as a hazy, angelic light bathes Mary in the witness box and her trial takes on Kafkaesque proportions. Redford obviously wants to make the enraged, corrective movie of his glory days. The effort is admirable, even if his whole team isn’t on the same page.