By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” about the only female accused of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln, informs of a sad truth you first learn in the playground and then have confirmed somewhere in your graduate history studies. Might makes right. Oh, we noble Americans try alright. But we still have quite a way to go.
Detailing the rigmarole of conscience and the fear that too often trumps it despite our best efforts to realize an enlightened society, “The Conspirator” intelligently dissects the trial that shortly followed the catastrophe. A few paragraphs in, it is apparent that while shedding light on the historic episode, Mr. Redford is also referencing its example.
Just as the antiwar “M*A*S*H” (1970) was about Korea, but really an epistle about Vietnam, it is clear that the case of Mary Surratt is a barely veiled muckrake of how we’ve dealt with our most recent class of alleged terrorists. Led by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s charge, Robin Wright Penn’s Surratt is denied a jury trial.
Stanton wants to leave nothing to chance. A war-weary, beleaguered nation is hungry for quick remediation and healing. Hence, she is to be judged by a military tribunal of seven generals and two colonels. And since no lawyer might represent her without himself being accused of treason, the perfunctory defense falls on an unproven novice.
While a celebrated war hero and undeniable advocate of justice, James McAvoy’s Frederick Aiken demurs politely when approached by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson to defend Mrs. Surratt. The cards are stacked. Nonetheless, politics and careers being what they are, he ultimately accedes to the lead defense attorney’s imploring.
The stage set and the players in place, director Redford rolls up his sleeves and unfurls a substantial, filmic monograph on this unfortunate but very telling chapter in American history. Though complicated, and fraught with as many unanswered questions as still attend the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, there is an engaging accessibility.
Invitingly realistic art direction and costumes establish the era; competent acting performances secure the demeanor and intrigue surrounding the painful crucible. Machiavelli is alive and well in 1865 Washington, D.C. So is the social scene, absorbing and integrating the cause celebre into its daily buzz. And then there’s Mrs. Surratt herself.
No sense equivocating here. Redford, working from a script by James D. Solomon, is decidedly sympathetic to the accused’s case for reasons that will studiously evolve as the story unfolds. Of course, in Hollywood fashion, despite the film’s independent bearing, counselor Aiken will take some convincing. Suffice it to note, he is first a seeker of truth.
Robin Wright Penn is excellent in the title role as she walks a frayed tightrope between national disgrace and unwitting victim of circumstance. As of April 1865 the U.S. Federal Government has never executed a woman. That this may soon be about to change is sharply dramatized in Mrs. Surratt’s wrinkle lines, perplexed gaze and wary speech.
Just in case you forgot this right after you aced the test, the only known conspirator to have eluded the long arm of the law following the assassination was Mary’s son, John (Johnny Simmons). Often in the company of the plotters during late night sessions in mom’s boarding house, his complicity is less a cause for speculation than Mrs. Surratt’s.
But he’s purportedly hiding in Canada, and they’ve got her. Thus the prosecution’s cat and mouse scheming clashes with motherly love in a conundrum worthy of Greek drama. The high stakes finagling is not lost on Mr. Aiken, tossed into this unwavering, steel-cold vice to do the bidding of those powers that be. It will prove the watershed in his life.
Even the Civil War didn’t prepare counselor Aiken for the tough realities that often upset our apple cart of idealism. In fact, he thought that he fought the war to preserve what he saw as the American way. Mr. McAvoy’s fine interpretation of the young lawyer’s harsh revelations serves as a smart subtext to the tale. The poignant postscript speaks volumes.
Portrayed as Aiken’s indomitable foil, keeping the ship of state afloat through the only patriotism he knows, Kevin Kline’s Edwin Stanton superbly represents the intemperate tone of the times. Equally persuasive, Tom Wilkinson as senator and former Attorney General, Reverdy Johnson, perceptively embodies the judicial predicament.
Warning! Hawks and those who believe in shooting first and maybe asking questions later should note, this is from a champion of lost causes. Essentially a clinic in human rights, it isn’t as much about Mrs. Surratt’s innocence or guilt as it is about one’s right to a fair trial. Truth is, “The Conspirator” is really a plot to preserve an endangered value.
“The Conspirator,” rated PG-13, is a Roadside Attractions release directed by Robert Redford and stars Robin Wright Penn, James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson. Running time: 123 minutes
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