Director : Robert Redford
Screenplay : James D. Solomon (story by James D. Solomon & Gregory Bernstein)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), Kevin Kline (Secretary Edwin M. Stanton), Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt), Tom Wilkinson (Reverdy Johnson), Alexis Bledel (Sarah), Danny Huston (Joseph Holt), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker), Colm Meaney (Gen. David Hunter), James Badge Dale (William Hamilton), Johnny Simmons (John Surratt), Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichman), Stephen Root (John Lloyd)
I imagine that viewers will likely be split by the transparency with which Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, a handsomely mounted dramatization of the trial of Mary Surratt, who was accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, comments on the political atmosphere of the past decade. Some will find the film’s application of historical events to the current climate--the more things change, the more they stay the same--galvanizing and brave, while others will find it obvious and overstated, a case of overreach that doesn’t properly address the here and now while subjugating history to modern politicization. It is particularly interesting that Redford would tackle this project as his follow-up to Lions for Lambs (2007), a talky, mostly failed attempt to engage the various political issues surrounding the “war on terror.” Perhaps due to that film’s failure to connect with either audiences or critics, Redford felt the need to cloak, however thinly, his political message in the guise of historical record, drawing parallels between the betrayal of constitutional rights and rule of law following Lincoln’s assassination with the violent political rhetoric in the wake of 9/11.
The story centers around the military trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widower who owned a boarding house in Washington, D.C., that was a favored meeting spot for the men who conspired to assassinate Lincoln, including John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), the actor who pulled the trigger in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Surratt is initially defended by Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), an outspoken senator from Maryland who must step down because he realizes that a senator from a state that was never fully aligned with the Union during the Civil War is a liability. Instead, he asks Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a well-respected Army captain and war veteran to take over the defense. Aiken is understandably reluctant because Surratt has long since been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and his mounting a vigorous defense would be seen by his friends and social peers as tantamount to treason (never mind the Constitution’s guarantee of a fair trial for everyone--emotion trumps reason every time). Aiken also finds himself up against not just an aggressive prosecutor (Danny Huston) and a military court predisposed to finding Surratt guilty, but also the behind-the-scenes machinations of Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline), the Secretary of War who believes that Surratt’s conviction and execution is essential to keeping the peace and ensuring that there is not another Southern insurrection.
Thus, the trial itself is fundamentally a sham, and the more Aiken comes to believe that Surratt, a faithful Catholic and determined mother, is not guilty, at least of the charges brought against her, the more he becomes aware of the manner in which law and reason, the bedrocks of the democracy he fought and nearly died defending, can be set aside in favor of specific ideologies that assert emotionally resounding arguments about safety, security, and simplistically defined notions of evil. Screenwriter James D. Solomon, who studied Surratt’s trial transcripts quite extensively, works in fairly broad strokes, as do the actors, with Kline playing Stanton as the very epitome of dangerous pomposity in the Dick Cheney mold while Wright makes Surratt into a fierce, resilient martyr and McAvoy struggles furiously as the film’s growing conscience, sacrificing his social standing, fiancée (Alexis Bledel), and possibly even his sense of self to ensure that his client is given a proper trial.
Redford directs The Conspirator in a notable theatrical manner, playing up the tensions in the courtroom and rarely if ever straying from enclosed spaces, which are filmed quite beautifully by veteran cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel (Three Kings, Valkyrie), who baths the rooms in swaths of dust and cigar smoke and piercing shafts of intrusive sunlight. It is, in every sense, a chamber drama with wide-ranging political implications, and the material suits the ideological intent quite well, even if it sometimes feels a bit too obvious in its parallels. I suppose the idea is that retelling the story of how Surratt was sacrificed to appease the country’s fears of coming apart at the seams might somehow trigger in more conservative viewers the realization that its contemporary parallels are just as misguided and, potentially, destructive. Yet, for all its engaging dramatic qualities (it is never at any point dull or stilted), The Conspirator ultimately feels a bit too much like preaching to the choir.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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