The Conspirator opens on a Civil War battlefield where two wounded Union soldiers lie waiting for aid. To distract his fellow, one starts a joke about two men meeting at the pearly gates, but when the situation changes the joke is interrupted and forgotten.
That in-the-moment immediacy runs through Robert Redford’s film, an engrossing recreation of a little-known but fascinating and sobering chapter in American history. Credibly researched by screenwriter James Solomon and beautifully filmed by Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Three Kings, Valkryie), it’s a rare historical drama that credibly captures a sense of another era while allowing its characters to breathe and talk and argue like men and women living in the present tense. No one in The Conspirator seems aware that they inhabit a period piece.
The assassination of Lincoln is one of the most iconic moments in American history. Less well-known is the larger context: a conspiracy to decapitate the Union and regalvanize the Confederacy with simultaneous attempts on the lives of Andrew Johnson and William H. Seward, the secretary of state. The Conspirator opens with a grimly persuasive recreation of the events of that tragic evening, quickly proceeding to largely unknown aftermath: the trial of Booth’s fellow conspirators, and a woman who may or may not have been one of them.
Mary Surratt was a Southern Catholic widow who ran a boarding house where Booth and his fellow conspirators often met — and whose son John was the only one of Booth’s fellow conspirators to evade capture in the months after the assassination. Was Mrs. Surratt prosecuted by way of trying her fugitive son by proxy? Or, if she was a conspirator, to which conspiracy was she a party? For that matter, to which was John?
To these historically minded questions The Conspirator adds a pointedly topical theme. Mrs. Surratt and her fellow defendants were prosecuted, not in a civil trial before a jury of their peers, but by a military tribunal. Were the verdict and the sentence essentially determined beforehand? Guilty or not, was the Constitution and the rule of law upheld or flouted? If the government was free to treat Mrs. Surratt as it did, how safe are any of us?
The parallels to post-9/11 debates are obvious, and the film doesn’t hesitate to underscore them. (They also come ready-made: The male conspirators really were hooded for their entire incarceration. Whether Mrs. Surratt was hooded may not be clear, and the movie mercifully doesn’t go there.)
Yet the widespread critical take on The Conspirator as a lefty tract is unconvincing to me — and not just because I find it too dramatically and historically compelling to label a tract. A few years ago it might have played as a partisan indictment of the Bush administration’s expansions of executive power. Today, though, with many of Bush’s critics chagrined by the Obama administration’s perpetuation and even advancement of similar policies, concern for rule of law and limited government powers can’t be claimed as a partisan issue in the same way.
More cynically put, sidelining the Constitution may now be considered a matter of bipartisan executive policy. Solomon’s screenplay was written before 9/11 — he began research in 1993 — and, if it speaks truth to power, it’s a truth I can imagine bringing together the film’s left-wing director and the likes of Ron Paul or Glenn Beck, over against the unchecked use of power on either side of the political aisle.
The film shrewdly tells the story through the eyes of Capt. Frederick Aiken, Esq., a Union officer and attorney who finds himself in the unwanted position of defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Played by James McAvoy (previously seen in Atonement and as Tumnus in the first Narnia film), Aiken is a patriotic war hero repulsed by the prospect of defending a Southern partisan and accused conspirator to Lincoln’s death.
That’s precisely why Mrs. Surratt’s distinguished attorney, Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), wants Aiken on the case. A Southerner who opposed requiring loyalty oaths from voters, Johnson is well aware of the baggage he brings to the case. (According to Wikipedia, Johnson defended the slave owner in the Dred Scott case, though he was opposed to slavery and later helped prevent Maryland from seceding during the war.) A Union war hero is just what the tribunal judges (led by “Star Trek”’s Colm Meany) need to see.
At 28, Aiken’s youth and inexperience are ill-suited to the case. If he loses, the government forces gets its conviction — and any criticism falls on Aiken’s young shoulders. Yet winning would be an act of near-treason that would make his name worse than Mudd. Even to take the case is to risk being anathema to his peers, not to mention his fiancée Sarah (“Gilmore Girls”’s Alexis Bledel).
As Aiken, McAvoy is likably ordinary: smart and principled, conflicted, brave, in over his head. (I’m reminded at times of a young Richard Dreyfuss.) Wright imbues Mary Surratt with proud, stoic dignity and ambiguous reserve. Though insisting on her innocence, she’s strangely uncooperative in her own defense. Is she guilty, or at least compromised by incriminating circumstances? Or is she protecting others, notably her son John?
Aiken’s gradual transformation from unwilling token defender to impassioned advocate is subtly and convincingly realized, along with his growing realization of the cost of the path he is on. An act as understated as a cleared throat during the first day of testimony suggests his initial diffidence and perplexity. And watch the responses and the interplay of the characters as Aiken makes an unpleasant discovery escorting Sarah to an officers’ club party.
Yet mere chivalry, if nothing else, won’t allow him to entirely harden his heart to Mrs. Surrat — or her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood, The Wrestler), whom he is with during a frightening moment of duress. Professional pride goads him in the courtroom, and his sense of justice begins to rebel against his growing awareness of the forces arrayed against him.
Those forces include war secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) and prosecutor Joseph Hold (Danny Huston), both utterly persuasive, though the screenplay may go too far in vilifying Stanton in particular. Kline projects erudition and decisive leadership as a close friend of the late president stepping to the vacuum left by Lincoln’s departure. In the end, though, he tips too far into Machiavellian territory, and here at least the filmmakers may strain to connect the dots (we may be meant to think of Cheney or Rumsfeld).
The Conspirator strongly inclines toward a particular conclusion regarding Mrs. Surratt’s complicity, though room for doubt remains. Her devout faith is a recurring motif, from the rosary beads she clutches to the priest who visits her, and who may know where John is hiding. (The film doesn’t tell us that John’s flight took him as far as the Vatican, where he served under a pseudonym in a papal infantry force until being recognized and fleeing again.) In a dramatic exchange in Mary’s cell, Aiken brandishes a Bible, challenging her to swear to the truth of her claims, and it’s clear that he really expects her to recognize an oath on the Word of God as truly binding.
Unfamiliar with the story’s vagaries as I was, I found the climactic twists and turns gripping and devastating. From what little I’ve been able to verify, it looks as if the film is generally faithful to the shape of the known facts. “Witness History” is the motto of The American Film Company, which co-produced The Conspirator as their first feature. The Conspirator brings history compellingly and even brilliantly to life.
Okay, technically that’s misleading since it isn’t really my Union suit: I rented this Yankee soldier uniform from the helpful folks at the Party Stop & Costume Corner in Westfield, NJ for this 30-second review of the Civil War-era film The Conspirator. I really dug the film, and I had a lot of fun doing this review. Enjoy!
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.