Redford’s Lincoln Conspiracy Leads to Hanging Lady: Rick Warner

Jose Maria de Tavira and Elodie Bouchez in "The Imperialists Are Still Alive." The film is directed by Zeina Durra. Photographer: Magela Crosignani/IFC Films via Bloomberg

As she mounted the gallows on a broiling summer day in 1865, Mary Surratt was shaded from the sun by an umbrella. She and three men, all convicted of conspiring to kill President Abraham Lincoln, were about to be hanged in a prison courtyard in Washington, D.C.

The umbrella is one of many fascinating details in Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” which focuses on the trial of the first woman executed by the U.S. federal government.

Director Redford and screenwriter James Solomon deserve credit for making a historical drama that largely sticks to the facts. The depiction of Surratt’s trial by a military tribunal is based on Solomon’s exhaustive research into the court transcripts and other written accounts of the trial.

Accuracy, however, doesn’t always produce a stirring story. “The Conspirator,” which is being released on the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, is a talky, often ponderous film that’s better suited to the History Channel than your local multiplex.

The movie offers a sympathetic portrayal of Surratt, a widow who owned the Washington boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators plotted to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

The case against Surratt was relatively weak, mostly based on her son John’s involvement with Booth and the fact that the conspirators met under her roof. She denied knowing anything about the Lincoln plot and refused to turn against her son, who fled the country after the assassination. But the military court -- Gitmo analogies are sure to be made -- wanted a swift, sure resolution.

Ford’s Theatre

Surratt is played with quiet dignity by Robin Wright, looking as stern as a Sunday school teacher. The other central character is her unlikely attorney, Frederick Aiken (a bearded, studious James McAvoy), a Union war hero who reluctantly agreed to defend a Southern sympathizer accused of plotting to kill the president.

Redford quickly sets the stage with cross-cut scenes of Booth shooting Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, co-conspirator Lewis Powell savagely stabbing Seward in his bed (he survived) and their partner George Atzerodt getting drunk and failing to carry out his assignment to murder Johnson. The momentum stalls during the courtroom scenes, which are robotically enacted like a 19th-century version of “Law & Order.”

The period costumes and setting (the film was shot in Savannah, Georgia) are first rate, and Redford gets solid supporting performances from Tom Wilkinson and Evan Rachel Wood.

“The Conspirator,” from Roadside Attractions, opened yesterday across the U.S. Rating: **1/2

‘The Imperialists’

Asya, the protagonist of “The Imperialists Are Still Alive,” is an avant-garde New York artist of Arab descent who grew up in Paris. She has a Mexican boyfriend, hangs out in Chinatown and attends glamorous parties with her hip, multiethnic friends.

Zeina Durra’s loosely constructed film is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman searching for identity in a potpourri of cultures. While living a bohemian life in Manhattan, she agonizes over her brother’s plight in Beirut (which is being bombed by Israel) and a close friend who may have been abducted by the CIA as a suspected terrorist.

Asya, sensitively played by Elodie Bouchez, reacts to Middle East stereotyping through her art, including a nude photo of herself wearing only a headscarf and a family-style portrait of Arab women brandishing guns.

The film has no real plot; it just follows Asya and her friends as they roam around New York. Fortunately, most of the characters are funny, smart and likable.

“The Imperialists Are Still Alive,” from IFC Films, opened yesterday in New York. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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