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'The Conspirator' gets mired in its message

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'THE CONSPIRATOR': Robin Wright Penn stars.
  • 'THE CONSPIRATOR': Robin Wright Penn stars.

In his latest feature, director Robert Redford — actor, philanthropist, looker and liberal of much renown — leaves his knack for touchy-feely mom-preferred dramas and descends into the precarious world of American politics. "The Conspirator" focuses on President Lincoln's brutal assassination and the dashing young Union-war-hero attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), charged with defending Mary Surratt (a funereal Robin Wright), the widow who runs the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his motley team of Confederate sympathizers (Surratt's son among them) allegedly concocted their plot.

Aiken is given this unenviable task by his superior, Sen. Reverdy Johnson, played by the infallible Tom Wilkinson. Surratt is fingered, rather unnecessarily, by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) and is called to appear before a jury of Stanton's military tribunal cronies in what becomes an increasingly desperate attempt to hold someone, if not many people, accountable for the murder of the greatest American president.

At first one might be inclined to think this is merely an educational re-enactment, perhaps a bit top-heavy with its ensemble cast acting their faces off, as A-listers are so inclined. But historical dramas, like their deformed-twin genre science fiction, are seldom made without some purpose of thinly veiled commentary. "The Conspirator," for all its earnest admiration of the American institution, lovingly employed period facial hair and handful of standout performances, does little to move beyond its battering ram of a message.

No doubt it takes a filmmaker of great confidence to painstakingly reproduce the murder — in graphic detail — of the Great Emancipator within the first 10 minutes of his picture. While it serves to heighten the drama, the result is a totally jarring opener that leaves the audience wobbly, and, frankly, the acting feels wobbly, too. McAvoy's tottering performance makes one think he's only a good actor when speaking in his native brogue. Kline's Stanton is so flat and reptilian it feels like he belongs in a B movie. And I still have yet to figure out what The Mac Guy and Rory from "Gilmore Girls" are doing in their baffling minutes of screen time — providing a youth-minded anchor? 

The brilliantly tense courtroom drama halfway through the film allows some of the actors to regain their footing. When Aiken counsels with Surratt in her spartan prison cell (the only woman held in the same facility as dozens of men) we are reminded of Robin Wright's ability to destroy us. Evan Rachel Wood's portrayal of Surratt's weird daughter gives her a chance to nail the Southern accent she massacred in "Whatever Works." Throw in a visit from everyone's favorite character actor, Steven Root ("Newsradio," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), and things feel comfortably back on track. 

While the huge Hollywood ensemble cast might have felt like a good marketing strategy, the sheer heavy-handedness of Surratt's prisoner-of-war martyrdom, alongside a few disappointing performances, smacks of a bunch of famous liberal bros joining together to make an op-ed flick as a favor to their friend — the kind of concept Fox News hounds lie in wait for. At best, we get to see Robin Wright killing it in a way we perhaps forgot she could, and take away a piece of American history we were probably embarrassingly unfamiliar with — this is absolutely a relevant, compelling story worth telling. And yes, Mr. Redford, Guantanamo — and the treatment and trial of our war prisoners anywhere — is a horrible bungle that our country needs to parse out. Perhaps we should be ashamed of ourselves — but a preachy, underwrought period film is too facile a vehicle for this scolding. 

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