The Conspirator is an über-genre movie, a hybrid of two classic Hollywood modes—the historical reenactment and the courtroom drama—that tries to satisfy the demands of both. In the early scenes, a barely glimpsed President Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Both. The government, still reeling from the Civil War, wants swift justice for the crime and arrests a number of supposed accomplices, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Southern transplant who hosted Booth in her home. But much else about the case remains unclear, both to the characters and, as it turns out, to the audience: Is Mary really guilty or not? How much did she know and how soon? What happened to her son, who fled days before the assassination? And why does her daughter, Anna, seem like such a closet nympho? Is it because she’s played by Evan Rachel Wood?
If the director, Robert Redford, and his writer never fully answer any of these questions, it’s probably for a reason. This is a very old-fashioned kind of movie, in which characters’ dirty laundry is skirted for more principled questions about the significance of our country’s past. Wright does a game job of evincing Mary’s moral and spiritual panic: How does she prove her innocence without giving her own son up for execution? But if she never quite rises to the challenge of, say, Sean Penn’s moral ambiguity in Dead Man Walking, it’s because Redford is less interested in Mary as a real, living person than as an abstraction of U.S. history. The War Department, led by Edwin Stanton (an unflinching Kevin Kline), will do anything to punish Mary if it means putting the Confederacy in its place. Meanwhile, a young, inexperienced lawyer named Frederick Aiken (the always likable James McAvoy) has taken on the uniquely unpopular position of defending Mary, on the grounds that everyone, even Booth, deserves a fair trial. McAvoy, the movie’s moral center and Redford’s political doppelgänger, practically glows with nobility when he tells a judge, “This is about the Constitution!”
Indeed, it is about the Constitution, which might make The Conspirator‘s mission seem a little dry. But it’s hard to remember a film more committed to its own good cause. Redford nimbly dramatizes a historical moment that is politically relevant without being explicitly preachy. Unlike a few others, including Anthony Lane and Armond White, I didn’t read the news-of-the-day Guantanamo references in the film’s critique of military tribunals, though it’s certainly a critique worth making: The U.S. Senate has voted to keep Gitmo open indefinitely, while blocking the transfer of any of its prisoners to American soil, including the most notorious, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who will now, much like Mary Surratt herself, face a trial by military commission. Maybe, then, we should praise Redford for his relative restraint: His little history project might be a whole lot more prescient than we seem to think.