Robert Redford's The Conspirator takes aim at post-Lincoln assassination frenzy — and misfires 

The Lincoln Loiterer

The Lincoln Loiterer

Even though it merges courtroom-drama conflict with historical-drama earnestness, The Conspirator most resembles a TV movie that seems to have escaped from whichever cable channel was going to air it. (Maybe it heard that, much like that miniseries on the Kennedys, it was going to end up on the damn-near-nonexistent ReelzChannel and decided to make a run for it.)

The Conspirator takes us back to the 19th century aftermath of the Abraham Lincoln assassination. With a nation hellbent on seeing the culprits hang for the murder of their leader, several Southerners are arrested and subsequently put on trial for conspiring to kill Lincoln. One of those people is lone woman Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the boarding-house owner whose home was often frequented by John Wilkes Booth and the other accused conspirators (including her on-the-run son).

Despite Surratt claiming that she did not know what the men were up to, the government is intent on making her an example and trying her before a military tribunal after she refuses to give up the whereabouts of her son. It's up to Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a hotshot young lawyer and Union war hero who initially thinks she's guilty, to prevent her from being hanged and to expose the trial as the witch hunt that it is.

The Conspirator is yet another trip to the wayback machine for period-piece-loving actor/director Robert Redford, and dude practically shoots everything through a sepia-toned lens, as if you're watching an ancient photo come to life. Oddly, though, the movie is more about exposing the corruption of our previous administration than the administration in The Conspirator. It's apparent that Redford, along with screenwriters James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, wants to point out the fearmongering, war-approving, constitutional-rights-overlooking parallels between that era and the Bush II era. Redford even has Kevin Kline play Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as a dastardly Cheney-Rumsfeld combo, just in case a single skull remains unconked by these falling anvils of contemporary relevance.

For all its straining for significance, however, The Conspirator is messy and mediocre. The courtroom scenes alone exhibit the sort of bombastic overacting and pompous dialogue that makes the whole thing just embarrassing to watch. It's also the sort of movie that casts some of the most stalwart character actors working (Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney) and demands that they ham it up for their performances, while several young actors of limited range (Alexis Bledel, Justin Long) are miscast alongside them in underwritten roles. The scenes between McAvoy and Wright are the most tolerable. (And am I the only one who thinks Wright took the role just so she can play a more convincing, sympathetic, misunderstood prisoner than the one her ex Sean Penn played in Dead Man Walking?)

In the end, The Conspirator gets done in by its own bland staging, hoary histrionics and played-out agenda. The movie feels like such a low-rent production, you may end up rewatching Quiz Show just to take you back to a time when the Sundance Kid could do classy, well-acted period dramas about corruption and innocence lost.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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