Yes, Redford can’t help but infuse his narrative with the expected talking points, typically whenever Surratt’s initial counsel, played by Tom Wilkinson, appears.
“Abandoning the Constitution isn’t the answer,” Wilkinson bellows at one point regarding the ongoing tribunals.
The film’s core strengths lie in its casting choices. McAvoy, a gifted young actor who excels at playing men far wiser than they first appear, shifts delicately from skeptic to Surratt‘s passionate defender. McAvoy’s intelligent gaze sweeps the smoky courtroom, his mind racing to find ways to defend a woman almost certainly doomed to hang for her connections.
McAvoy’s turn ultimately suffers from the same sense of arrogance that likely seeped out from behind the camera. Aiken becomes self-righteous to the point of parody in the final reel. A better film would have allowed those in favor of tribunals to have more say in the matter.
Still, Redford resisted stuffing the screen with caricatures. Even the actors cast as the prosecutors, like Danny Huston, are treated with dignity.
The closest the film has to an unexpurgated villain is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who doesn‘t bother hiding his disdain for the legal process.
The Conspirator’s arguments regarding modern military tribunals are ultimately an apples and oranges discussion. The terrorists at Guantanamo Bay aren’t, for the most part, American citizens, so they shouldn’t automatically gain all the rights therein. And one of the key reasons why tribunals exist in the first place is to keep sensitive material out of the hands of the terrorists’ defense teams.
Simply put, civilian trials puts the country and its citizens in danger.
Redford seemingly prefers to avoid that direct conversation, so he couches his liberal impulses in a historical context instead.
The one allegory Redford likely didn’t intend to convey with The Conspirator is the intractability of the positions held by the film’s main characters. Aiken becomes steadfast in his belief that military tribunals are the wrong way to go, while the prosecution won’t even consider whether Surratt is best served by a jury of her peers.
The Conspirator may fall in line with other left-of-center Hollywood products, but Redford shrewdly packages it in a rigorously entertaining courtroom drama that doesn’t demand ideological fealty to enjoy.
For another take on the film, read “Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink: Robert Redford’s The Conspirator.”