The guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt -- the boardinghouse owner under whose roof was hatched the plot to murder Abraham Lincoln -- doesn't really matter so much in Robert Redford's "The Conspirator," a bracing courtroom drama whose every scene seems wreathed in mist, dust motes and cigar smoke, the better to suggest a nation befogged by grief.
Surratt (Robin Wright), whose son, John, was unquestionably one of John Wilkes Booth's confederates, was swept up in the raids that followed Lincoln's death, which also was followed by a constitutional crisis sparked by loss, mourning and a fear that the just-finished war might be rekindled by a vengeful North. It's the abandonment of national principle that interests Redford, and screenwriter James Solomon, too. And all their pointed references -- to military tribunals, hooded suspects, loyalty oaths and the haste to "put it behind us," justice be damned -- make for a period piece with contemporary echoes.
But as often happens, when righteous indignation comes in the door, finesse flies out the window. Excepting James McAvoy's Frederick Aiken, Civil War hero and Surratt's reluctant lawyer, the characters are fairly one-dimensional. Surratt is made near-saintly, her eyes weary, her rosary clutched, her chin upraised against the political winds that are dictating her fate. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) is clearly intended here as the Lincoln administration's Dick Cheney, and even though Danny Huston is terrific, his prosecutor Joseph Holt is basically Satan with a law degree.
McAvoy, however, holds the thing together, making Aiken convincingly torn between his antipathy toward the South, his devotion to the law and the insult of his client's trial, which is shamelessly fixed. He's abetted by Redford, who, despite a lack of subtlety in the characterizations, shows he's still got the directing chops, as well as a healthy sense of political outrage.