Those who cannot remember the past ...
The Conspirator, historical courtroom drama, rated PG-13, 3.5 chiles On the evening of April 14, 1865, as Abraham Lincoln sat in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., enjoying (one hopes) a production of Our American Cousin, John Wilkes Booth slipped into his box, put a pistol to the president’s head, and fired.
The assassination of a president was unprecedented in the nation’s young history, and it horrified a country still traumatized by the terrible Civil War that had effectively ended just five days earlier with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In our time, the only thing that compares to that cataclysm of national shock and grief is Sept. 11. And it is that frame of reference that drives Robert Redford’s inspired historical drama, The Conspirator.
Booth, who broke his ankle as he leapt to the stage, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!” managed to escape, but he was eventually hunted down and killed. In the days after Lincoln’s assassination, a number of people suspected of complicity in the plot were caught up in a wide-ranging dragnet. Among them was Mary Surratt, owner of a Washington boardinghouse where the conspirators met and mother of John Surratt, a Confederate spy implicated in the plot. Ultimately she was brought to trial along with seven men (her son John escaped capture). Her trial is at the heart of this movie.
Redford opens with a not entirely necessary battlefield vignette that introduces us to Capt. Frederick Aiken ( James McAvoy) in order to establish his bona fides as a Union hero. It is Aiken, a lawyer in peacetime, who will be drafted by his friend and patron, Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to lead the defense of Mrs. Surratt (Robin Wright). Aiken is an unwilling recruit. A committed Union loyalist, he has nothing but contempt and bitterness toward anyone suspected of involvement in the slaying of his commander in chief.
At the instigation of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline), the accused are remanded to a military tribunal for trial. “A military trial of civilians is an atrocity!” Johnson protests. “The world has changed,” says Stanton, arguing that, for the peace of mind of the country, what is important is to move on. “I want these people buried and forgotten.” “Abandoning the Constitution is not the answer,” Johnson retorts.
It’s not hard to see that Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon have their eye on Guantánamo and the abridgement of civil liberties in post-9/11 America, but the parallels are not belabored. “I don’t want to hit that too hard because then it sounds like agit-propaganda,” Redford remarked in an interview with USA Today. “I don’t think Americans respond too well to that. But you can show them something and let them decide.”
What he shows us is a sympathetic Surratt and a reluctant Aiken gradually coming to believe that his client is being railroaded. History is ambivalent on the question of her innocence, and the movie’s emphasis is not on that but on the breakdown of constitutional process.
In the tribunal, the most damning evidence against Mary Surratt was provided by a pair of witnesses who were among those incarcerated in the aftermath of the assassination. The position taken by the defense — and by the film — is that their testimony is tainted by the possibility of an offer of freedom in exchange for saying what the prosecution wanted to hear.
McAvoy ( Atonement), among the three British actors with leading roles in this American drama (along with Wilkinson and Colm Meaney as the Union officer heading the tribunal), is terrific in establishing the arc of his character from hostile conscript to passionate advocate. Aiken’s is a path that requires extraordinary courage under the hysterical conditions that prevail at such a time, and his commitment to the principles of law and justice cost him dearly. McAvoy handles the role with fire and intelligence (and with an unimpeachable American accent).
The supporting actors are all excellent, with Kline clearly relishing the role of Stanton, a bullying, endsjustify-the-means bender of truth and constitutional rights who bears a nagging resemblance to a certain vice president of recent memory. Wright is pale and appealing as the unapologetic Southern sympathizer who nonetheless denies any knowing complicity in the plot against the president.
Redford directs with a masterful sense of the period. The characters convincingly inhabit the time and space in which we find them. Solomon’s script is on target in terms of historical accuracy, and it weaves in verbatim quotations from the trial and the swirling events surrounding that frantic moment in our history. The art direction by Mark Garner persuasively recreates a small-town Washington at midcentury, and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography makes expert use of natural lighting to create an atmosphere you can almost touch.
It’s unusual for a film of such ambition and quality to come into theaters at this time of year. It may be that Redford thought what it had to say was too timely to wait upon the niceties of positioning for the Oscar dance. Guantánamo still endures, habeas corpus has become as quaint as bloomers, the Patriot Act glowers over our shoulders, and as we prepare to enter our second decade of permanent war, with its bruising impact on the Constitution, this film comes along to remind us that fear is no legitimate excuse for abandoning the principles of freedom and justice on which this nation was founded.
Robin Wright as Confederate war widow Mary Surratt, who was implicated in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln
James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson