"The Conspirator" Review: Hard to care about this Civil War drama

In this film publicity image released by Roadside Attractions, Robin Wright, left, portrays Mary Surratt in a scene from "The Conspirator." (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Claudette Barius)
Robin Wright, left, portrays Mary Surratt in a scene from "The Conspirator."
AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Claudette Barius

(CBS) Released in time for the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Robert Redford's "The Conspirator" serves as more of an elevated political reenactment, than the sharp, incisive thriller it purports to be.

The story itself is powerful . Redford, who has directed such hits as "Ordinary People" and "A River Runs Through It," takes a magnifying glass to the deep political divide that existed at the time.

He uses the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath to expose a deep-rooted political polarization and to expose a tenuous union.

James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland," "Atonement") is Frederick Aiken, a newly minted attorney and Union war hero anxious to get to work on his career. His first case is thrust upon him by Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson of "The Green Hornet", "The Kennedy's" TV series), a senator sympathetic to the South in the war.

Aiken must defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a confederate supporter and 42- year-old mother who owns the boarding house, where it is charged that John Wilkes Booth and others, including her son, met and planned the assassination.

The group also is accused of targeting other high-up officials, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) in what was a much larger, more complex conspiracy plot than one finds in the history books.

Unconvinced of Mary's innocence, Aiken nevertheless campaigns for her life, claiming she was not privy to any discussions that may have taken place at her boardinghouse. But it soon becomes apparent that his client is being used as a scapegoat to appease an outraged nation and bring some sense of unity to the country.

Kevin Kline, as Stanton, demands a quick military tribunal that will deliver the "guilty" verdict he (and the nation) is looking for. Now, at war with his own conscience, Aiken must fight for his client's life at the risk of ruining his own.

"The Conspirator" gets bogged down by meticulous attention to historical facts and political tone. Add the philosophical undercurrent that delves into the justice system and prevailing ethics and Redford's film feels like it belongs more in a high school lecture hall than on a big screen.

It moves briskly enough, with the assassination taking place just moments after the story begins, opening the floodgates to political and national outrage that dominates through to the end of the film.

Lackluster performances from both Wright and McAvoy do nothing to ignite a spark and there isn't enough character development for the audience to become emotionally invested in either of them. Kline, as the outraged war secretary forced to find a solution, is one of the only high points in the film.

Evan Rachel Wood is also interesting in her role of Surratt's daughter, adding a much needed emotional layer to the plot.

"The Conspirator" misses the mark in delivering the intensity and thrill of a suspenseful courtroom drama and fails to spark controversy the way some historical introspectives can.

It just leaves audiences asking, " Who cares?"