The two big questions posed to movie goers this month are: “Who is John Galt?” and “Who is Mary Surratt?”
The former query should be familiar to devotees of Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged, but the latter will likely cause a shrug or two. Surratt’s legal case in the wake of the Lincoln assassination is the focus of The Conspirator, director Robert Redford’s latest politically charged drama.
Surratt was swept up in a government sting following the assassination, but her connection to the crime wasn’t immediately certain. Redford uses that ambiguity to revisit the U.S. legal system’s promise to assume even those accused of horrific acts are innocent until proven guilty.
And, as Redford and his film see it, using military tribunals to find those answers betrays the country’s core principles. It’s a safe bet he didn’t imagine his film would hit theaters shortly after President Barack Obama gave the A-OK for such trials to address terrorists in American custody.
It’s one reason, perhaps, the otherwise sturdy film isn’t receiving the kind of critical raves often associated with left-of-center dramas. Seen from a neutral perspective, the film marks Redford’s best directorial effort since 1994’s Quiz Show.
The Conspirator opens with two Union soldiers comforting each other after a bloody battle. The action jumps ahead two years, and one of those wounded men has recovered and now practices law.
Capt. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) no longer fights on the battle field, but he’s called into service all the same to defend a woman accused of conspiring to kill the president.
Mary Surratt (Robin Wright in a quietly haunting performance) sure as heck seems guilty. The men who killed Lincoln and tried to slay both the country’s Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson stayed at Surratt’s boarding house for weeks before the tragedy.
Surratt’s son, John, had recently befriended the vile Booth and fled after the assassination.
Aiken assumes Surratt is guilty, but the more he learns about her case and witnesses the bullying prosecution, the less sure he becomes.
I disagree with frequent PJM reviewer John Boot on the merits of Redford’s new movie. From my perspective, The Conspirator marks a return to form for Redford, whose directorial career suffered a crushing blow with his boring, pedantic Lions for Lambs four years ago. Redford stages the Lincoln assassination with great care, maximizing the event’s shock value without dipping so much as a toe into the realm of exploitation.
The film itself is handsomely appointed, the period details nailed down so efficiently the modern world never threatens to break the spell.
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.”