One of the most interesting — and perhaps most perilous — artistic choices is obvious in the opening moments of The Conspirator, which will be released nationwide on April 15th.
There’s a great action story that could be told here of the dramatic shooting of President Lincoln in a crowded theater, the ultimately vain efforts to save his life, and then the two-week long pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, who was eventually cornered and fatally shot in a barn in Virginia. There were any number of minor dramas in those few weeks that would enhance such a film — the train with Lincoln’s body crossing the country to Springfield, the arrests of alleged co-conspirators, and on and on.
But The Conspirator decides to cover all of that action in quick cuts in the opening moments, and then quickly settles down into a predictable (we know how it turns out after all) courtroom drama focusing on the trial of Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house where the plot to kill Lincoln was allegedly hatched. Surratt’s individual story might be little known among the general public, but it doesn’t take long to adjust to the contours of the story.
In one of the juicier ironies of the movie and of history, Mary’s son John — who seems likely to have been involved in the assassination planning and even admitted to plotting to kidnap Lincoln a month before the assassination — escaped the country, was extradited from Egypt the following year, was set free after a mistrial, and lived a prosperous life. That story, too, seems ripe for cinematic treatment, but it gets only a few minutes of play in The Conspirator.
It’s been six months since I saw a screening of the film at the Savannah Film Festival, but Robin Wright’s steely radiance as Mary Surratt is still with me. With pale skin, piercing eyes, a stoic face, and a voice that seems more like an eerie prophet’s than a political terrorist’s, Wright is simply superb. It was impossible to watch anyone else when she was on screen.
As lawyer Frederick Aiken charged with defending her before the hopelessly biased, this-is-all-starting-to-feel-too-contemporary military tribunal, James McAvoy is game and energetic, but I never felt like he could rise above the constraints of the script. Idealistic? Check. Increasingly indignant? Check. A young war hero getting schooled in the ways of the world by a variety of older and more powerful men? Check. But that’s all he’s given room to do, and the attempts to bring a personal touch to his character by showing his increasing estrangement from his friends feel a little clumsy, especially in one particular scene where Justin Long (as Aiken’s friend Nicholas) seems out of step with the more restrained acting style that most of the cast seems to have adopted for the period piece.
Evan Rachel Wood brings a youthful passion to the part of Mary’s daughter Anna, who seems tightly wound by both the political and familial trauma, and Tom Wilkinson is superb as Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, who apparently was to lead the defense of Surratt and her alleged co-conspirators (whose individual stories the movie unfortunately has little interest in) but who turned the courtroom work over to Aiken.
The movie is lush and complex; the sets and costumes lovely. The filmmakers made great use of their Savannah locations: sites within the Historic District today mimic pretty well the District of Columbia of a century and a half ago, and some of the shots of Fort Pulaski are stunning. The courtroom interiors are sometimes too foggy — maybe 1865 was a particularly humid year? — but I can’t imagine there will be many viewers (even among diehard Savannahians) who will object.
And kudos to the American Film Company for using the film and their website to spur discussion of Civil War history. The company has films in development about both Paul Revere and John Brown, both of whose stories could be riveting if told well.
A post last fall on AFC’s website actually described The Conspirator as “a riveting thriller.” If only. The film is an earnest courtroom drama that in part explores the current debate about whether terrorists should be tried before military tribunals. It’s a likable and serious movie, one that — for better or for worse — consciously downplayed the most thrilling parts of the real life story.