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Ten Word or Less Review: The not quite Lincoln Lawyer

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the kind of monumental event in U.S. history that echoes forever throughout our land.  An entire industry based around the life and death of our 16th President flourishes to this day, unabaited by time, always provoking discussion in new generations of followers.  With Lincoln’s assassination serving as a grim, sinister conclusion to the Civil War, this chapter of American history has and always will fascinate historians, scholars and on occasion, filmmakers.  Throwing his hat into the ring this time is screen legend Robert Redford, the sometime director tackling the trial of convicted Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt.  With one of America’s most pivitol moments in its sprawling history at his finger tips, Reford has turned in a small scale court room piece that has big ideas driving it, but can’t muster up a sensation of being very important despite it’s many assertions to the contrary.  It’s more Law & Order: Civil War than compelling cinematic drama.

Mary Surratt was railroaded.  At least that’s what Redford believes.  The owner of the inn where John Wilkes Booth and his ilk, including Mary’s son John, conspired to kidnap Lincoln, Mary Surratt is given the benefit of the doubt here.  The Conspirator presents Mary Surratt as a dutiful and proud woman, always dressed in black, grimmly portrayed by Robin Wright Penn, willing to admit culpability to a point.  She knew Booth and company wanted and tried to kidnap Lincoln, but claims ignorance about Booth’s plot to assassinate the commander in chief.  Defending her is Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy).  Stone cold sure in her guilt, Aiken begrudingly takes the case as a favor and fully expects to phone in a defense . As more information comes to light Aiken slowly begins to think that while Surratt is no saint, her constitutional rights are being stripped away out of a biblical need for vengeance on behalf of a pissed off U.S. Government, an effort being spearheaded by Secretary of War Andrew Stanton (Kevin Kline).  Surratt is tried with all the members of the conspiracy in a military court, a decision with merits still debated to this day.

Historical trappings aside this is all Grisham thriller stuff with swankier costumes. Conspirator has drawn a very capable cast together but the screenplay leaves everyone with a lot of arc dialogue to deal with.  Most don’t resemble characters so much as ethical points of view and obstacles to McAvoy’s Aiken.  Reford’s also stacked the historical deck completely in favor of Surratt.  Secretary of War Stanton, Surratt’s prosecutors and the generals in charge of her trial all seem like a pack of oily evil doers, a step away from twirling their mustaches as they plot to do in the vile traitor woman.  The events and characters surrounding Surratt and her prosecution are incredibly dense with details and motives and it feels like Redford has stripped away too much, simplfying things to the point that there’s no doubt about Surratt’s being ethically innocent and the wrong being committed is at the governement’s hands.  The details surrounding Lincoln’s killing are volumes in size and many points are open to scores of intrepretation.  Redford shuns the messier aspects of Surratt’s guilt or innocence and instead focuses on the fact that her trial may have been a violation of her constitutional rights.  While The Conspirator is entirely watchable this story makes for no more than a lot of transparent and manipulative drama we’ve seen many times over.

The Conspirator should leave viewers mildly satisfied in the end. History buffs will probably leave clamoring for more but those less concerned with history will probably get by with watching what is an okay court room flick. Court room dramas are like pizza, rarely terrible enough not to try once, but an underwhelming sensation can hang over it.  Redford’s choice to apply an incredibly small scope to a huge piece of American history leaves his film feeling like a distinctly minor accomplishment.  With an entire nation torn apart by conflict, hundred’s of thousands of people killed, cities burned to the ground and a nation’s leader slain in the waning moments of the war, the story of this vaguely knowable woman dressed in black who may or may not have had anything to do with anything seems trivial.

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