One of the film’s crew sent me some other suggested reviews that she thought put the film in a better light. So I looked at those, plus a few others.
Roger Ebert with the Chicago Sun-Times liked the literate, somewhat intellectual approach of the film:
Well, was Mary Surratt a conspirator? I put the question point-blank to Redford recently, and he said he thought she must surely have known what her son was discussing with the others under her roof. But her guilt isn’t the issue. The film is about the correct means of determining guilt — or innocence. If the Constitution says you can’t do something, if it guarantees a due process, then it must be obeyed.
All of this requires a lot of theory, a lot of philosophy and lot of dialogue. Those most interested in American history will probably find “The Conspirator” most valuable. Those who want a historical romance or a courtroom potboiler will be disappointed. You have to give credit to Redford, Wright and McAvoy, and the other filmmakers. Not many films this smart can be made.
Dana Stevens at Slate liked the movie generally but a certain ambivalence is obvious even in the title and subtitle to his piece: “George Bush Killed Abe Lincoln; Despite some overly drawn parallels, The Conspirator is a gripping historical account.” Stevens writes in part:
Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (Lionsgate), a courtroom drama about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, has no business being as entertaining as it is. Less a movie than an extended re-enactment from a History Channel documentary, the movie is stagey, preachy, and long on exposition. It’s easy to imagine the bulleted list of questions to be handed out afterwards for high-school civics students to ponder: What is a writ of habeas corpus? But once you accustom yourself to this film’s unhurried rhythm and old-fashioned Hollywood stolidity, The Conspirator is not without its pleasures—
At Time, Richard Corliss noted the same political parallels that so many have remarked upon:
The most troubling and satisfying aspect of The Conspirator, director Robert Redford’s account of the Surratt case, is the comparison it draws between the actions taken by the Andrew Johnson administration immediately after the event of Apr. 14, 1865 — the first assassination of a U.S. President — and the Bush Administration’s actions in the months and years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Corliss thinks the movie transcends that political message:
This may sound like catnip to Bush-whackers, and an outrage or a yawn to everybody else. But this retelling of a crucial, poorly-remembered chapter of American law and war has enough atmosphere, stalwart acting and suspense to appeal to the mass of moviegoers, even those indifferent to the primacy of justice over vengeance.
Peter Rainer with the Christian Science Monitor sees the same limitations in terms of political parallels:
Essentially “The Conspirator” is a courtroom drama with occasional bulletins from the outside world. It plays out to its predictable end with the doggedness, if not the verve, of a “Law and Order” episode. Still, the nightmare of Lincoln’s assassination, and its immediate aftermath, is effectively delivered, and Wright, shrouded in black, her face a mask of indomitable sorrow, gives great gravity to what might otherwise have been a waxworks historical reenactment.
In the LA Times, Kenneth Turan loved many aspects of the film, but circled back to the same familiar territory in his conclusion:
“The Conspirator” is first, last and always a political drama, and, Wright’s performance aside, it is the play of events of history that most holds our interest. A celebrated line from Cicero, quoted in the film, sums things up: “In times of war, the law falls silent.” It was true in Roman times, in Mary Surratt’s, and, regrettably, it remains so in ours as well.
In a mini-review at the Chicago Reader, J.R. Jones favorably compared The Conspirator to Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford’s stunning courtroom drama about war crimes during the Second Boer War. That’s an interesting — and deeply wrongheaded — comparison. Breaker Morant unfolded the violent events in flashback as the film proceeded, not with the front-loading of The Conspirator. Breaker Morant led us clearly toward truth, as characters’ characters were revealed layer by layer and facts laid out. Breaker Morant certainly had modern parallels, but it was first and foremost a story about people in a particular time and place; any connections to the changing nature of warfare in the mid- to late-20th century were incidental to the story itself.
The good reviews of The Conspirator seem to share the opinion that the seriousness and contemporary relevance of the film elevate it — that they make it transcend whatever limitations the reviewer notes. Perhaps those good reviews would have been great ones, and the bad ones at least mediocre, if The Conspirator script had captured some of the narrative magic of Breaker Morant.