By Eric Plaag
One of the most despicable moments in our nation’s history was that time when the U.S. Secretary of War decided in the midst of a national security crisis that keeping fear alive amongst our citizens was the best way to hold the nation together. Keeping fear alive, of course, meant demonizing those who had any connection to our enemies, even if that connection was remote and tenuous at best. By doing so, he reasoned, the nation could not only heal its wounds but also feel a sense of justice accomplished against the perpetrators of the nation’s tragedy, even if the party held responsible for those crimes was little more than a scapegoat for the actions of others who were either dead or still on the run. This was a moment in our nation’s history when individual liberties were sacrificed wholesale to the personal whims and political aims of those running our government, a time when all that we held sacred as Americans was at risk in the hands of a powerful few.
If you were to read the above paragraph outside the context of this review and have vivid, nightmarish images of Donald Rumsfeld run amuck, I wouldn’t blame you, for this is exactly the image that Robert Redford, the director of The Conspirator, wants you to have indelibly seared in your mind when this movie finishes with you. This is not to say that the story (from a screenplay by James D. Solomon) is a politically biased hack job dressed up in period costume; in fact, the presentation of the circumstances surrounding the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the boarding house owner who may or may not have assisted Abraham Lincoln’s assassins, is remarkably balanced and illustrates the moral and political sacrifices that are often made in the interest of the “greater good” of national security. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect film.
The film sticks largely to the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the federal government, moving quickly through the conspiratorial events on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and some leaden material that introduces us to Surratt’s defense attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero who has opted for a new career as an attorney. Aiken is in the prime of life, well-liked by his friends, well-respected by his superiors, and on the verge of a promising marriage. Opportunity arises when Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the former U.S. Attorney General, recommends a reluctant Aiken to serve as defense counsel for Mary Surratt’s prosecution before a military tribunal. From this point forward, the film is a traditional courtroom drama, with Aiken experiencing one frustration after another as he runs headlong into the injustices of the proceedings as well as the public shunning that destroys his reputation in Washington’s social circles. Coordinating the Surratt’s prosecution from behind the scenes is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who repeatedly evades Aiken’s attempts to secure an audience until the inevitable confrontation between them over the value assigned to individual rights in America and what obligation the government has to protect those rights.
In less sure hands, one could imagine a director taking great dramatic liberties with the historical facts in order to force audiences to see the parallels between Surratt’s trial and our government’s ugly behavior in the wake of 9/11. Indeed, it is surely not an accident that The Conspirator’s original release date was September 11, 2010. Redford, though, is smart enough to realize that the history itself is sufficient to create those links without having to resort to creative license. Among the injustices that The Conspirator highlights is the fact that dozens of Washington actors were still being held without benefit of either charges or trial more than a month after the assassination in the hopes of teasing out of them information that might reveal other conspirators. Those conspirators who had been formally charged were kept in solitary confinement, refused visitation from family or friends, and (with the exception of Surratt) forced at all times to wear padded canvas hoods that covered the eyes and ears and only permitted a small opening for eating. Prisoners were not permitted to bathe or remove their leg irons or ball and chain for the entirety of their months-long incarceration. With regard to Surratt’s trial, meanwhile, even though she was a private citizen not acting on the field of battle, she was nevertheless refused a public trial and instead prosecuted before a military tribunal. In this environment, traditional evidentiary rules did not apply, and Aiken frequently ran afoul of the tribunal’s rigorous limitations, thereby making an adequate defense of Surratt nearly impossible. Even when Aiken finally won a crucial legal battle for Surratt, the ghost of Lincoln’s infamous suspension of habeas corpus during the war came back to seal Surratt’s fate. But the film is by no means just a litany of these numerous judicial inequities. The Conspirator allows us to see Aiken and Stanton engage in several vicious confrontations that highlight the slippery slope of protecting the nation and its long-term future at the necessary expense of individual liberties and justice, thereby raising good questions about just where that line should be. Redford ably walks us through all of these issues, knowing when to let the visuals speak for those horrors and when to make them central to the dramatic action and dialogue.
Redford does make the occasional misstep, however, such as when he gives too much screen time to Aiken’s oft-repeated refrain that he does not at first understand why Surratt is even owed a defense, much less why he should be the one to give it to her—a boner that any first-year law student knows better than to commit. Likewise, the opening few minutes of the film—which feature a bloody battlefield scene and some moonlight-and-magnolias socializing by Aiken and his friends—feel a bit contrived and too much like the stock material that made those unbearably long scenes in Ted Turner’s Gettysburg so laughable. At times, too, the attention given to Aiken’s relationship problems also feels a bit too melodramatic, as does a heavy-handed visit with Surratt’s son in the closing moments of the film. It is as if The Conspirator is trying to blunt its central—and compelling—political debate about individual rights by dressing it up in the clichés of nearly every Civil War film made in the last thirty years. Then again, maybe Redford knows what he’s doing. Each time one of these overtly dramatic moments rose to a crescendo, the two simple-minded women behind me (who during the trailers proclaimed the forthcoming Bad Teacher and Larry Crowne “cute” but Tree of Life “weird” and “dumb”) crowed in ecstasy about how “sad” it was that things could be so unjust. Perhaps Redford reasons that if those two women (and millions of Americans like them) can see injustice in what happened to Mary Surratt, then maybe—just maybe—they’ll be able to make the connection to more contemporary events.
It is a dangerous bargain to sell out one’s craft and principles in the hope of gaining a wider audience, and at times Redford seems to do exactly that. While McAvoy’s performance is textured enough to be worthy of a Golden Globe nomination (if not an Oscar), and Wright, Wilkinson, and Kline are certainly up to their usual snuff, as a whole The Conspirator too often undercuts its thoughtful focus on what liberty, justice, and the American way really are by pandering to melodramatic conventions that are both unnecessary and poorly executed. As a result, The Conspirator becomes yet another in that long list of films that most Americans won’t see but probably should, rather than one that they must see and actually do.
Theaters, 3 out of 5 stars