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A review: 'The Conspirator'
Redford's locally-made movie screened at Savannah Film Festival
Robin Wright and James McAvoy in director Robert Redford's "The Conspirator."

Wednesday night's feature at the Savannah Film Festival - kept secret until just before the projector rolled - was The Conspirator, the Civil War drama helmed by Robert Redford here in the waning months of 2009.

The Conspirator won't be released to theaters until next spring, so getting it here for the traditional hush-hush "Director's Choice" slot was an impressive accomplishment by the festival's movers and shakers.

A sold-out crowd at the Trustees Theater greeted the film with loud applause. Indeed, every wide shot of a Savannah street - gussied up to look like Washington, D.C. in the year 1865 - drew a round of cheers.

You don't really see a lot of Savannah - most of the building facades were shot at night, giving everything a hazy, under-the-gaslights glow. Blink and you'll miss them.

The Conspirator tells the story of Mary Surratt, one of four persons convicted and executed in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The American Film Company, which bankrolled the movie, has a strict rule about making pictures that adhere to the tiniest historical detail.

One of the problems with that solemn oath is the simple fact that history, for better or worse, doesn't always lend itself to compelling movie-making.

This, perhaps, is the main reason so many filmmakers play fast and loose with historical facts. Hilary Swank looked great playing Amelia Earhart in a recent bio-pic, but Amelia erased and re-drew the lines of the truth behind the great aviatrix' story.

The Conspirator, then, is limited to what's in the historical record about Surratt, her co-conspirators and the actual assassin, John Wilkes Booth. And while it's a tragic, and certainly fascinating story, it's not going to give Harry Potter a run for his box office money.

The film is centered around a young lawyer, former Union officer Frederick Aiken, who's assigned to defend Surratt in her trial before a court of military officers.

Aiken is played by the intense-eyed Scottish actor James McAvoy, who sadly has neither the presence or gravitas to go up against Kevin Kline, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, or Tom Wilkinson, playing former attorney general Reverdy Johnson.

Aiken's scenes with Surratt (Robin Wright, consigned to a few lines of mopey denial dialogue here and there) take place entirely within the walls of a dank military prison, where she's waiting for the trial to run its course (it's our very own Fort Pulaski). Surratt, like Aiken, pretty much knows the outcome already.

That's because Stanton wants an expedient end to what's essentially a show trial; the American people, he says in the film, need revenge before the wounds of the just-ended war, and Lincoln's murder, can heal. He wants Surratt and the others dead and buried so the country can get on with reconstruction.

Surratt's rights, or the fact that Aiken keeps finding holes in the prosecution's case, mean nothing to the Secretary.

All of which leaves director Redford precious little to work with, visually. He films the courtroom scenes with lovely shafts of light streaming through the windows and bathing McAvoy in the glow of the righteous, and his camera is crane-mounted for several impressive overhead tracking shots, but for the most part The Conspirator is just a big talk-fest.

It's very well-made, it's just kind of, well, boring - which history most definitely is not.

The early scenes, in which the assassination of the President is carried out, simultaneously with the "daggering" of a bed-ridden Secretary of State William Seward, are among the most exciting moments in the film.

(Perhaps this company will one day film the book Manhunt: The 12-Day Search for Lincoln's Killer, which also keeps to the known facts but is still an addictive page-turner.)

The Conspirator clearly had a healthy production budget for facial hair; the beards, sideburns and bushy moustaches of the period look real and honestly grown, as opposed to films like Gettysburg or Gods and Generals, with their hastily glued-on remnants swept up from some barber-shop floor.

And while we're on the subject of strict accuracy: Why does the actor playing John Wilkes Booth look less like the oft-photographed assassin and more like rock singer John Oates, or the Frito Bandito?

Well, at least that execrable Miley Cyrus movie won't be the last word in Chatham County movie-making.