As a director, Robert Redford has twice orchestrated impeccable re-creations of bygone eras: the Twenties in A River Runs Through It and the Fifties in Quiz Show. His latest delves further back into American history, 1865 to be precise, just as the Civil War is concluding and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. This period, however, proves to be a trickier proposition and despite the purest of intentions, Redford’s gripping courtroom drama is also at times a clunky costumer, filmed in distractingly desaturated hues.
Recounting lesser-known details of a perpetually scrutinized chapter in U.S. history, the film’s twin focal points are Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the sole woman among eight people arrested and charged with conspiring against the president, and Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a war hero new to the law, who reluctantly agrees to act as her defense.
Whether she’s a guilty party or victim of the federal government’s rush to “justice” weigh on Aiken less than the fact that her fate will lie in the hands of a military commission rather than a civilian jury. Aiken’s increasing attachment to the proceedings alienates those around him—much as McAvoy’s striking, dedicated performance sets him apart from many of his co-stars. (An absolutely unwatchable Justin Long, as Aiken’s wartime buddy, is by far the worst of them.)
Ultimately, The Conspirator showcases a lead actor in search of a better movie and fascinating source material worthy of a grander vision.