A battle-scarred lawyer starts to wonder what he was fighting for when he faces a military court bent on revenge and a nation willing to forget the Constitution to have that revenge in The Conspirator, Robert Redford's courtroom drama about the Lincoln assassination.
There's barely a hint of a great filmmaker working with a fraction of his normal budget in this wonderfully cast and carefully shot period piece, which focuses on Mary Surratt, one of the people accused of conspiring to murder President Lincoln.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, an officer just recovered from combat as the war is in its last days, a man whose chief hope is to restart his life and marry the girl (Alexis Bledel) who waited for him while he fought for the Union.
But one night of terror — the murder of the president, the attempted murder of the secretary of state — interrupts that. The movie vividly re-creates those attacks and the attempted escape and capture of the assassins.
As the capital reels with shock, the roundup begins of those who might be connected to the plot. The secretary of war, Edward Stanton (Kevin Kline, in a fine fury), fumes, "Damn the rebels; damn them all to hell," and sets up a military court to try those accused, among them Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met.
"A military trial of civilians is an atrocity," declares Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, perfect). It's a regular Inquisition. Johnson shames Aiken into joining the cause.
Aiken is a reluctant defense attorney, inexperienced in such trials. And few lawyers of the day would have been prepared to face a kangaroo court of the sort Stanton assembled to railroad the accused to the gallows. They're all Union Army officers (Colm Meaney is the meany in charge). They seem hell-bent on dispensing with considering evidence. Surratt's son was involved and has fled the country. Her house is where the conspirators met. And she's a Southerner. Guilty!
Wright plays Surratt as a defiant but resigned Catholic woman who won't give away her son's whereabouts, no matter what conditions she is imprisoned under and no matter what fate awaits her. Even her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), not in prison and forced to bear the brunt of the city's fury at her family, can't dissuade her.
The trial itself is both a comedy of injustice and a parade of great character actors: Stephen Root is a shifty member of the Surratt circle; Shea Whigham is a soldier who puts loyalty ahead of the truth. McAvoy does well at suggesting a lawyer forced to relearn his old career on the fly, challenging evidence to no avail, tripping up dishonest witnesses. And the screenplay shows us the price Aiken started to pay, the social cost in taking an unpopular case.
Redford and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who shot Leap Year in a lovely, soggy Irish green, give the film sepia-accented scenes in the court, hazy natural light putting witnesses, judges and the gallery in alternating bright light or dusty shadow.
It doesn't quite come off as the allegory for our times that Redford intended. But The Conspirator makes a fine addition to his résumé.