In the Obama administration, you can see enacted the old conflict between idealism and reality — most recently in the death match over budget cuts. Redford's new film takes up the theme, confronting fundamental dilemmas between means and ends. But the film lacks the nerve to come to terms with the complexities its subject raises.
Robert Redford's The Conspirator — an account of the little-known aftermath of the Lincoln assassination that includes the capture and trial of John Wilkes Booth's purported co-conspirators — draws parallels between the extra-constitutional methods applied then to protect the country from possible terrorism and those employed in today's War against Terror. Over and over again. Memo to Redford: we get it.
Such high-school-play heavy-handedness permeates the film, the side of the issue represented by each player as prominent as everybody's facial hair. We know that Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is noble because in the battlefield prologue he orders stretcher bearers to carry off a fellow soldier first even though he himself is grievously wounded. He becomes a lawyer after the war and, naive and disposable, is assigned to defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, who seems as if she'd stepped out of American Gothic), mother of one of Booth's collaborators. Call Aiken the original "Lincoln Lawyer."
Although personally furious about the assassination, Aiken grows indignant over the gross miscarriages of justice in the prosecution. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), in charge of the proceedings, explains that he has to ignore the Constitution in order to preserve it. Other points of view get aired in that hackneyed format, the courtroom drama. To the film's credit, it makes you want to read a book about the subject.
>> READ: Peter Keough's review of In A Better World <<