In the wake of the assassination of President Lincoln, a boardinghouse keeper named Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is charged with conspiracy to murder the president. John Wilkes Booth and his henchmen met at Surratt’s boarding house to plan their misdeeds, and Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline, playing this despicable character with an understated zest) is determined to see her hang at the hands of a military court no matter the facts of the case.
This is a courtroom drama with a great backstory, set in a time of fear and chaos, its plot driven by the power of the characters involved. James McAvory is the former Union captain-now-lawyer assigned to defend Surratt despite his conviction that she is guilty. He is torn between his personal beliefs and his desire to do his job to defend Surratt to the best of his ability, and it is this conflict that is central to The Conspirator. Having taken the case is already turning out to be ruinous to his career, but to win the case would mean making enemies of powerful people, including President Johnson, who are determined to see Surratt at the gallows.
The parallels to Guantanamo and the U.S. military tribunals is obvious, and at times the preachy screenplay gets in the way. While questions about denying constitutional rights to the accused in the face of terror and fear are important and critical to the story, The Conspirator as a straight historical drama would have fared better than The Conspirator as a message movie. This is Robert Redford’s eighth film as a director, and thankfully not as politically heavy-handed as Lions for Lambs. I don’t mind a political movie, no matter what the slant. I just don’t like politics getting in the way of a good story. And this movie comes close - but doesn't quite manage - to cross that line.
But politics aside, The Conspirator has a lot going for it. It’s beautifully shot, competently directed, nicely acted (Tom Wilkinson as former Attorney General Reverdy Johnson stands out) and serves as a window into a post-Civil War story that is not often told.