When Fox Searchlight began in the mid-‘90s, its top guns drew up a checklist of the kinds of movies they’d consider making. Earning an automatic nix was any script in which characters wore top hats or other period dress.
Historical dramas have always been a tough sell. Oh, sure, there’s “The King’s Speech,” but unless you’re handing Mel Gibson a musket and calling it “The Patriot” or painting him blue for “Braveheart,” it’s hard to get the masses to turn out.
For one thing, when folks go to the megaplex, they want to be entertained, not returned to the classroom. And if they want to watch historical reenactments, there are already plenty to watch on the History Channel from the comfort their Lazy Boy.
And that’s too bad, because there are not just lessons to be learned from history but parallels to be drawn. The tricky part is to do it in a way that a contemporary audience can relate to and understand, while involving them in the characters and story being told.
That’s the task facing Steven Spielberg as he embarks on “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the nation’s 16th President, which is scheduled to begin filming this fall. It’s also one director Robert Redford wrestles with, only half-successfully, in “The Conspirator,” in theaters this weekend.
This dutiful historical drama takes place in the immediate aftermath of the 1985 assassination of Lincoln — eight conspirators are quickly rounded up and arrested (the actual assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, was fatally shot during his attempted capture 12 days after the murder). One of the conspirators is Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright), a widow who had run a boarding house in Washington, D.C. in which the conspirators met. If she’s found guilty during a trial before a military tribunal, she faces the gallows.
Drafted to defend her is a decorated Union Army officer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). The young lawyer is initially reluctant to take Surratt’s case, since he’s repulsed by the crime and figures she’s guilty. But as the trial begins, it becomes increasingly clear to him that there’s reason to believe she may be innocent.
What’s more, in the government’s rush placate public outrage at the assassination with swift convictions, her Constitutional rights are being ignored and suspended. One would have to have been napping for the past decade not to pick up on the glaring parallels to Guantanamo and the U.S. military’s on-going trials of accused terrorists.
The movie starts off a jumbled mess as it depicts Lincoln’s assassination and the attempted ones on the Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, and then the subsequent capture of the conspirators. But as it narrows its focus to Aitkin’s efforts to save Surratt, “Conspirator” gains dramatic heft and draws a viewer in.
By the time it reaches — spoiler ahead, for anyone who failed American History 101 — its inevitable tragic end, it’s really quite moving. The biggest hitch is the plodding screenplay by James Solomon (“The Bronx is Burning”), which reminds one of episodes from that earnest, vintage TV re-enactment series, “Profiles in Courage.”
Redford gets strong performances from McAvoy and Wright and amusingly hammy ones from Tom Wilkinson, as a crafty senator, and Kevin Kline, as Edwin Stanton, the bellicose secretary of war.
Watching Kline thunder away, I kept thinking how perfect he’d be as Lyndon Baines Johnson, pulling on his dog’s ears and complaining that America didn’t love him.
Now, there’s a historical drama I’d be happy to sit through.