Redford is a fine director and The Conspirator is a watchable costume drama worthy of his talents, but it ultimately won't be recognised as one of his more memorable efforts. It's certainly far better than The Horse Whisperer or Lions for Lambs say, but unfortunately doesn't hold a candle to his greatest achievements in the directorial chair, Ordinary People and Quiz Show.
It starts arrestingly enough with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in 1814. Washington DC is obviously up in arms and quick to find the perpetrators behind his death as well as the attempted murders the same night of two other governmental figures. But there's a larger conspiracy afoot and the authorities believe that Mary Surratt (Wright) is the lynchpin of it. She had recently moved to the capital to live in a boarding house, renting out the rooms to various individuals visiting there.
Was she privy to the fierce discussions behind closed doors about a kidnap attempt on the President? Her son John (Simmons) is an acquaintance of Wilkes Booth and is implicated but she is held responsible for the planning of the Commander-in-Chief''s demise. After all, she and her family are Southerners, defeated by the Northerners in the recent Civil War, and are unafraid to display their animosity to their new governors.
A kangaroo court, or rather military tribunal to give it its proper title, is set up to bring justice but the odds are severely stacked against her. Especially as her defence counsel is young and inexperienced Freddie Aiken (McAvoy), a Unionist soldier who begrudgingly takes on the job of defending her against against the smooth and cunning prosecutor (Huston). Over time Freddie starts to see Mary's true colours and slowly comes to realise that there are far larger forces in play that are desperate to unite the country if the trial can be conducted quickly with swift retribution enacted.
Much of the screen time is taken up with the courtroom scenes and these are sold enough - well acted and well paced. Redford gives his actors space to inhabit their characters fully and his cast rise to the occasion handsomely. There's not a duff turn from anyone. But in between times one wishes he would go for the jugular more. Overall it's too sedate to satisfy. One is never moved by the eventual outcome, a monstrous miscarriage of justice, and it lacks emotional heft.
Time magazine's Richard Corliss concluded his review of Redford's The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) by saying that the movie needed to be more Butch and less Sundance. The same comment could go for this movie too. It should be applauded for its tasteful decency but a little more fire in its belly would make this historical drama more effective.
By the way, a note for fans of The Wire. Two of the cast of that TV masterpiece – Chris Bauer and Jim True-Frost – crop up in small supporting roles. They don't look out of place or uncomfortable in period garb. Good on 'em.