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Film Review: The Conspirator

The Conspirator (2010; Directed by Robert Redford)

A stiff, handsome historical drama with a superb cast working uniformly below their usual abilities, The Conspirator is Robert Redford’s first film as a director since 2007’s forgotten flop Lions for Lambs (Wikipedia told me it exists, as there would be no other way to tell) and his first film of any note in a full decade (this is only if you count The Legend of Bagger Vance as a notable film, which may be a stretch). It’s also a none-too-subtle political allegory of the fatal compromise of the rule of constitutional law in the United States in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror, examining one of the nation’s darkest moments – the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at the conclusion of the Civil War – to suggest that sacred principles have been threatened before in the Land of the Free, and will be again.

The Conspirator, from a script by James D. Solomon, tells the sad and legally alarming story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). A transplanted Southerner and devout Catholic, she was the mother of John Surratt, one of Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth’s associates, and owned and ran the boarding house where the conspirators met to hatch their plot. Surratt fils was a likely co-conspirator in the plot to kill the President, as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, although they survived separate attacks (considering the former implemented the travesty of Reconstruction and the latter bought Alaska and is thus indirectly responsible for Sarah Palin, one can be forgiven for wishing that the results had been inverted). As Booth was shot dead while resisting capture and Surratt was at large for some months after that, Mary Surratt was tried by a military commission in their absence along with other conspirators, and was eventually hanged with three other men convicted by the same court.

If you tell me my beard suits me, I’ll tell you that you look smashing in black.

The film is filtered mostly through the lens of Surratt’s defense counsel Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union veteran and ambitious young lawyer. Initially forced onto the case by his mentor Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) despite believing fervently in her guilt, Aiken becomes convinced that she is being railroaded to the gallows for PR reasons by the War Department and its indomitable Secretary, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). Whether it’s about “healing” or revenge, Mary Surratt has been elected to be punished for the crimes of the South in the interest of reuniting the nation after a bloody and destructive conflict. The disillusioned Aiken mounts a spirited if futile defense, of constitutional principles at least if not entirely of the defendant herself.

Redford begins things clunkily enough, re-enacting the night of the assassination plot and its manhunt aftermath with all the verve of a Legion Night amateur theatrical. For an event so literally bloody, it’s figuratively bloodless on the screen. The Conspirator gains some interest and conviction as Surratt’s trial ramps up, but even then simmers at low heat. Aiken is a stock James McAvoy lead role, the gradually disillusioned idealist who accrues maturity and insight at the cost of the life (or at least the soul) of the person he stands up for. He cuts a fine figure in period suit and whiskers, but doesn’t have to try very hard otherwise.

Wright is more laudable, investing the historically-villified Mary Surratt with tremendous integrity and tragic nobility. Even if her wardrobe is full-on Mary, Queen of the Scots and Redford and his DP Newton Thomas Sigel bathe her in angelic sunlight in every courtroom sequence, she’s an island of calmness and truth. Kline gets the Dick Cheney role and is allowed not an inch of breathing room to be anything resembling his usual charming onscreen self. Wilkinson has a nice Southern accent. All manner of recognizable half-famous faces crop up in the supporting cast as well. Among them are a horribly out-of-place Justing Long as Aiken’s jocular war buddy (he sings a jaunty song about Gettysburg at a party, in case you ever wanted to hear that), Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s stubborn daughter Anna, Alexis Bledel as his shallow would-be-fiance, and character actors from everything from Newsradio (Stephen Root) to The Walking Dead (Norman Reedus) to Boardwalk Empire (Shea Whigham) to The Wire (Jim True-Frost) cropping up, obviously desperate to work with the legendary Redford even in a movie this consistently middling.

But The Conspirator is not subtle at all about its real underlying agenda. In the military tribunal conviction of Surratt and the other conspirators lies the kernel of extra-legal abuses of power and the rule of law of the War on Terror, implemented by the Bush Administration but hardly abandoned by the Obama Administration that replaced it. This is Solomon and Redford’s central point, and they hammer it home with an old-fashioned moral insistence that evokes Liberal Hollywood at its most odious (there is at least next to no Lost Cause sympathy to be sussed out, at least not of the intentional variety). That the sanctified Lincoln has been accused of similar if not outstripping abuses in the pursuances of extraordinary wartime powers seems not to register. The parallels are starkly drawn, the implications never anything but clear: if one citizen’s constitutional rights are threatened, all citizen’s rights are threatened.

It’s not that this conclusion isn’t true, or that there’s something amiss with a convicted conspirator in the first assassination of an American President being chosen as historical champion of that perspective (a brave aesthetic choice that is, in a film full of uninspired ones). The Conspirator draws its dichotomies unambiguously and plants its principles into firm bedrock. In the case of the Civil War and its contentious aftermath, such moral absolutes only take us so far towards understanding the era, let alone to shedding additional light on our own. One can certainly admire The Conspirator for its forthright conviction, but that conviction blinds it to the complexities inherent in its own narrative, and it’s a weaker film for it.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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