Government vs. law in timely historical drama, ‘Conspirator’
In The Conspirator, Robert Redford wants to remind us that those who do not remember history are forced to repeat it. Part criminal investigation, part courtroom drama, the film portrays America in the aftermath of a heinous national trauma, during which the government proves willing to suspend large chunks of its citizens Constitutional freedoms in the rush to find (or create) scapegoat “evildoers” on whom to wreak vengeance in the name of “justice.”
It’s a true story, but not the one you’re thinking of. Redford’s film recounts events that occurred in the wake of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865, and the witch-hunt to identify and punish “conspirators” (real or imagined) as a way to rally a battered nation still reeling from the Civil War. It’s plain the timeliness of the material attracted Redford, the possibility of drawing unfortunately apt comparisons to post-9/11 political skullduggery that continues to infect our society today. Too meticulous a craftsman to beat us over the head with these comparisons, Redford allows the story to unfold at its own pace, with his usual eye for period detail and sense of restraint. There may be a whiff of staid earnestness about the whole thing from time to time, but the actors are engaging, the story is gripping, and the film achieves occasional moments of quiet power.
Scripted by James Solomon, the film stars James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken. A captain and war hero in the Union army, Aiken is in Washington DC, hoping to launch his new career as a lawyer, on the night Lincoln is shot in Ford’s Theater by the actor John Wilkes Booth. (Part of a larger conspiracy that also includes attempts on the lives of the vice president and secretary of state.) Within two weeks, Booth has been trapped and killed, and eight other alleged conspirators are in custody, to be tried at a military tribunal—seven men known to have had dealings with Booth, and one woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), widowed proprietress of the boarding house where some of the men resided.
Aiken is horrified when his mentor, Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) assigns him to represent Mary Surratt in court. “A military trial of a civilian is an atrocity,” declares Johnson. He understands that his adversary, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) is eager to placate the mob with a few swift hangings (guilty or not) in order to “heal the nation,” and is convinced that Surratt will never get a fair trial if she’s defended by a Southerner like himself. Aiken doesn’t want the job, but Johnson makes him a deal: if Aiken can prove that Mrs. Surratt actually is guilty, Johnson will release him from the case.
But nothing is as straightforward as Aiken suspects. Not only is Mrs. Surratt thrice-damned as a Southerner, a Catholic, and a woman, her missing son is the only alleged conspirator to have escaped capture. As the prosecution (led by the diabolically silky Danny Huston) trots out ever-more-spurious witnesses to support its case that Mrs. Surratt was privy to the secret plot cooked up by her boarders, Aiken comes to suspect that his poised, resigned client is predestined for a guilty verdict as a means of smoking out her son. Dismissed from his gentleman’s club, ditched by his fiancée, and facing a no-win career situation (if he loses, he’s incompetent; if he wins, he’s reviled), Aiken nevertheless argues passionately for real justice, even in inconvenient or unpopular circumstances. “Don’t sacrifice our sacred rights out of revenge,” he begs the court.
Redford’s well-chosen cast also includes Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, the prisoner’s anxious daughter, living under armed guard at her mother’s boarding house as her family disintegrates. And he has a storyteller’s eye for poignant or flavorful details; after the dying Lincoln is carried to a house near the theater, we glimpse his feet hanging over the edge of a too-short bed. Hawkers sell Lincoln memorial souvenirs outside the penitentiary where the prisoners are being held. And Wright’s fierce dignity reminds us how much of our collective humanity is at stake when we allow our government to corrupt our laws.
★★★(out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson,
and Evan Rachel Wood. Written by James Solomon. Directed by Robert Redford. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 122 minutes.