An overreaching Civil War drama
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 15, 2011
For several years now, Robin Wright has been delivering small but indelible performances in movies that usually feature her as a supporting player. In “The Conspirator,” Robert Redford’s absorbing if puzzling Civil War-era drama, Wright announces in no uncertain terms that she is back and more than ready for her close-up.
Wright plays Mary Surratt, who in 1865 was accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth and others to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and mount a coup against members of his Cabinet, including Vice President Andrew Johnson.
When she was hanged a few months later, Surratt went down in history as the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government — made all the more notable by doubts as to her guilt in ensuing years.
The historical consensus has since concluded that Surratt, who ran the boarding house where many of the conspirators met and whose son John was a Confederate spy and crony of Booth’s, was indeed guilty. But for there to be a movie Redford must play up the ambiguity — in “The Conspirator,” he portrays Surratt as a pious Catholic, devoted mother and, finally, martyr to overreaching military powers eager to trample on constitutional rights and due process in order to exact revenge in a domestic war on terror.
If that rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s on purpose: Redford clearly intends “The Conspirator” to be an Iraq War allegory, right down to the Abu Ghraib-like bags the Feds put over Surratt’s head while she’s locked up in a military prison. But the drama works best when Redford sticks to the story — little known over the years — which grows only more piquant when Surratt is defended by the former Union soldier Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy).
Handsomely produced, its characters often bathed in beams of diaphanous, dust-infused light, “The Conspirator” features outstanding performances in roles that, while drawn from history, have clearly been shaped to resonate with recent public figures. Kevin Kline’s war secretary Edwin Stanton bears an uncanny resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld (right down to the wire-rim glasses). Danny Huston, as the Union prosecutor, could be quoting from the major works of John Yoo and David Addington as he justifies trying civilians and limiting rules of evidence in a military court.
But the prime reason to see “The Conspirator” is Wright, who refuses to soften Surratt’s prickly character despite Redford’s attempts to make her a victim. With her hair darkened and severely pulled back, her face a mask of stony implacability, Wright delivers a simple, unshowy performance that never begs for the audience’s sympathy.
That can’t be said of Redford, who as a liberal reconciliationist to the end, tortures history and meaning himself. At one point, Surratt — whose staunch support of the Confederacy is indisputable — tells Aiken that they were both fighting for something larger than themselves. “We’re the same,” she says. Well, no. He was fighting to preserve the Union and she supported those who wanted to destroy it to preserve their right to enslave people. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, “The Conspirator” illuminates a fascinating chapter of an era that, 150 year later, still transfixes, confounds and divides us.
Contains some violent content.