Since making his Oscar-winning directorial debut in 1980 with 'Ordinary People,' Robert Redford has made films that exude increasingly glossy respectability. Admittedly, 'A River Runs Through It' is a gorgeous movie and 'Quiz Show' certainly has some amazing moments, but as a filmmaker Redford's choices haven't aggressively (much less memorably) gone against expectations; he's even recruited (or molded) multiple leading men (Brad Pitt, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Damon) to embody his sun-dappled, all-American image in stories for which he would have been perfectly-suited in decades past.
But while he thankfully hasn't entirely succumbed to "old-man movies" while attempting to craft thoughtful, pretty, adult-oriented entertainment, he continues to lose (or fails to communicate) the passion he feels for the material itself. And 'The Conspirator,' his latest, is a disappointingly lifeless political parable - filtered through real details of American history, no less - that highlights ignored injustices with an incisive eye, but fails to inspire enough outrage to make the audience care about their rediscovery.
James McAvoy ('Atonement') plays Frederick Aiken, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War as a hero and hopes to take his place next to Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as a successful attorney. For his first case, however, Johnson saddles him with one that tests his personal convictions as well as his professional mettle: defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of a young man named John (Johnny Simmons) who supposedly conspired with John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) to kill Abraham Lincoln.
Unconvinced himself of Mary's innocence, Frederick initially mounts a reluctant campaign to keep her from being sentenced to death. But after it becomes clear that prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and U.S. secretary of war Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) have engineered an inevitable 'guilty' verdict regardless of the facts, Frederick puts his career and his relationships on the line to free Mary, as well as to protect the ideals for which he previously literally fought on the battlefield.
There are few things as tedious as a movie that knows it's telling an important story, and 'The Conspirator' is so weighted from the outset with both literal and metaphorical significance that viewers are sort of helpless to let it plod forward, with or without their emotional investment. Only a few minutes after the film begins, Lincoln is assassinated, and shortly thereafter the dialogue begins to indulge in discussions that quite obviously parallel contemporary events about recrimination, justice, and soothing the Nation's outrage. In one scene, Wilkinson's character chronicles all of the examples in the local newspaper of fearmongering, while Aiken is himself convinced of Mary's guilt, and elects to defend her only in the name of protecting civil liberties.
Essentially, the film Redford's most resembles is Jonathan Demme's criminally-overrated 'Philadelphia,' which is also a message movie that supposedly protects itself from cheap sentimentality and lesson-learning by adhering to the letter of the law. In Demme's movie, Denzel Washington's character never particularly comes around to accept homosexuality, but he uses rhetoric and legal precedent in order to protect his client. Here, Aiken is never fully convinced of Mary's innocence, but he becomes so outraged at the conspiratorial efforts of his opponents that he becomes determined to win, if only on principle. The only advantage 'The Conspirator' has over its predecessor is that it doesn't include a scene where Mary Surratt offers an impassioned, "unrelated" (read: metaphorical) demonstration of her innate goodness, but Robin Wright plays her throughout with such stiff-lipped nobility that it scarcely needs one.
Ultimately, even as a prescient retelling of a crucial moment in our country's history, Redford's latest feels like a time-traveling episode of 'Law & Order' at best. Shot by Newton Thomas Sigel, who follows in a long line of accomplished cinematographers who worked with the director to create luxurious, saturated imagery, the film is like a velvet glove without the iron fist – a suggestion of importance that communicates no intensity but what exists automatically in the subject matter, and conveys no urgency but the inevitability of a foregone conclusion.
The really unfortunate thing is that Redford's philosophical commitment to telling stories that need to be told is genuinely palpable; you can tell that the film is meant to shed light, start a dialogue, or make people think a little more deeply. And if these sorts of films didn't feel like a dime a dozen, this one might actually have some real significance. But because all of the thinking is already done for the audience in 'The Conspirator,' there's very little reason to care, and the end result feels like an elegant reenactment – at best – rather than an incisive look at the times we live in, reflected in those we already lived through.