People sometimes forget that in addition to being an actor, Robert Redford is also known for his directing. The filmmaker surprised many with his directorial debut, ORDINARY PEOPLE, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1980. As strong of a film as ORDINARY PEOPLE is, Redford put out even better material in later years with A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT and QUIZ SHOW, which is one of my favorite films of all time. In recent years, however, Robert Redford has seemed to have lost his touch with his last four films. Unlike his earlier efforts, the filmmaker’s later films have ended up being overlong, laborious exercises in patience (THE HORSE WHISPERER, THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, LIONS FOR LAMBS). With his latest film, THE CONSPIRATOR, Redford has managed to rekindle some of his talents. Unfortunately, the noteworthy elements of THE CONSPIRATOR are outweighed by its negative aspects and the film has to ultimately rely more on the subject matter than Robert Redford’s talents to salvage itself.

I for one felt very ignorant when I learned that there was a conspiracy around the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Up until the release of the trailer for THE CONSPIRATOR, I always assumed John Wilkes Booth was the sole mastermind behind the president’s assassination. I was completely unaware that Booth was part of a group sympathetic to the Confederate cause who conspired to either kidnap or kill President Lincoln. The focus of THE CONSPIRATOR is around one of the alleged conspirators, a woman named Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who owned a boarding house in Washington, D.C. where the other conspirators stayed. When it was discovered that the conspirators lived in Surratt’s boarding house, Surratt was arrested and accused of being a member of the group. As the country was in a state of anger and sorrow over the murder of its president, the very facts that Surratt was a Southerner and that Booth was seen in her house was enough to bunch her with the others. Given the mood of the nation, very few, if any, Northerners were sympathetic to Surratt and the other conspirators and so finding an attorney to represent her was nearly futile. However, a young attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), is assigned to represent her. Aiken is a recent Union veteran of the Civil War so his assignment to Surratt is initially met with much resistance from the attorney. However, as Aiken delves deeper into his investigation of the facts and as he observes the open disregard for the rules of court and evidence displayed by the military tribunal trying the case, Aiken develops a change of heart for the plight of Mary Surratt.

The story of THE CONSPIRATOR alone makes for a compelling watch, especially for me where I had no idea what the final outcome for Mary Surratt was. The film keeps you guessing until the very end and even gets you to wonder whether or not she is really innocent. Equally interesting is watching Frederick Aiken struggle with his own feelings over Surratt’s innocence and his efforts to maintain a semblance of objectivity over the case. The tone of the film and its presentation of the facts are intentionally reminiscent of post-9/11 events and the handling of terrorist suspects by our judicial system. Some, especially historical purists, may find the intentional comparisons distracting or annoying. They might see it as Robert Redford once again imprinting his personal politics into the telling of his story. I for one didn’t take such offense. For one, Redford has always been a well-known political activist so it is to be expected that his films will contain a certain level of Redford’s political views on things. Second, THE CONSPIRATOR is a political drama and at times, history will be better appreciated and understood when it is compared to similar historical events. Besides, what film can truly be said to be objective? Isn’t the purpose of selecting a particular director to helm a project to get that director’s unique style and viewpoint to interpret the screenplay onto the screen?

As I said before, the film’s appeal lies in the final outcome of the story and Aiken’s struggle to set aside his personal feelings in order to defend the most hated woman in the country. This is helped in no small measure by the performances given by Robin Wright and James McAvoy. You immediately sympathize with Wright the moment you see her. Whether or not you think she conspired to kill the president, Wright is portrayed as the innocent martyr who is being offered up to the rabid nation to satisfy its lust for revenge. She’s quiet and homely, but at the same time strong-willed and resolute in her belief that she is innocent. Adding to her sympathy is the fact that she has resigned herself to assume that no one will believe in her innocence so there is no point in fighting to convince anyone otherwise. Robin Wright has always struck me as an unappreciated actress, part of which is due to the fact that after she married Sean Penn, she seemed to have dropped off the face of the planet. In the few films that she has appeared in, Wright has done a great job and now that her marriage to Penn has ended, I hope to see her return more regularly to the big screen.

James McAvoy is poised to become the next big Hollywood star once X-MEN: FIRST CLASS comes out in June. Ever since his star-making turn in ATONEMENT, McAvoy has become one of the industry’s most sought after actors and its not surprising to see why. Like his Scottish compatriot, Ewan McGregor, McAvoy strikes a nice balance between physical looks, charm, and intellect. Its pretty astonishing that the actor perfectly Americanizes himself in THE CONSPIRATOR to the point that if you did not know he was Scottish, you would be totally convinced he was an American. McAvoy’s Frederick Aiken is a Civil War veteran, a bright and impressionable attorney, and a staunch supporter of the Union’s cause. He loves his social status in Washington D.C.’s elite circles and never in a million years would he have expected to represent a woman who seemingly opposes everything he’s fought and stands for. McAvoy has the toughest job among the whole cast because he has to undergo an extreme transformation totally unwilling to believe Mary Surratt to being a complete believer in her innocence. McAvoy accomplishes this convincingly. I never got the feeling that the character unexpectedly does a 180 and changes his feelings overnight about his client. You can see the inner turmoil Aiken undergoes to reconcile his feelings toward Surratt.

There is much to be admired about THE CONSPIRATOR and it ultimately works despite its shortcomings. I don’t know what the film’s budget was and I surmise it must not have been very high given that it wasn’t made by a big studio and it doesn’t have big crowd-drawing stars. Whatever its budget, the film has a low-budget look that reminded me of a History Channel documentary. Redford tries to overcome the low-budget quality of his film by using a lot of soft-focus lighting and close-up shots. Except for one cool looking matte painting showing a very countrified Washington, D.C., you never see wide expanse shots of landscapes. This is not entirely a criticism of the movie, but at the same time, it would have been nice for a story like this to have received a bigger budget.

My other criticism of THE CONSPIRATOR is one that probably wouldn’t bother history buffs and attorneys, but is likely to bore the hell out of mainstream audiences. Given the dramatic and high-stakes nature of the film’s story, THE CONSPIRATOR surprisingly lacks a lot of drama. Sure, you don’t know what Mary Surratt’s final outcome will be (or at least I didn’t) and the climax effectively builds some suspense before we learn of the woman’s fate. However, for most of the film, the story proceeds as if we’re being given a history lesson. Instead of feeling any excitement or suspense, I felt like I was watching a procedural. Not only does Aiken have to decide for himself whether his client is innocent or guilty, but he also has to deal with societal flagellation from his fiancée, friends, and colleagues. What’s more, Aiken is forced to defend his client in a courtroom that blatantly ignores the rules of evidence. All of this is perfect material for a suspenseful courtroom drama, but its unfortunately lacking in THE CONSPIRATOR.

As I said before, I will recommend THE CONSPIRATOR mainly for its fascinating story. However, the film could have benefitted greatly with a bigger budget, a different directorial style, and a more dramatic or suspenseful screenplay.