Factually accurate historical dramas, you might assume, would be a boon to a filmmaker aiming to impart a profound lesson to a wide audience, especially when his message isn’t ideologically jarring or overtly political.
In Robert Redford’s Civil War movie “The Conspirator,” however, the reluctance to amend or stray from the historical record, or to be provocative in any way, almost backfires. Preserving the ambiguity regarding Mary Surratt’s role in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, while admirable in many respects, threatens to undermine what amounts to a decent courtroom drama. Because Mrs. Surratt’s fate is over-determined (and known to non-historians who’ve seen the trailer), the narrative tension risks being minimized by a clash between concepts.
Granted, those ideas—let’s call them justice and peace—are giants. Should the legal rights of one citizen be trampled upon in the sincere hope of stopping bloodshed and helping ensure a nation remains intact? “No” is the answer offered by our Judeo-Christian heritage and “The Conspirator,” which dramatizes this hinge of American democracy in a safe, moderately edifying and entertaining manner. Encouraging us to consider seriously the opposite response would be a more impressive feat, but the film raises then squanders this intriguing possibility.
From a historical perspective, depicting the divisions in the United States after the Civil War is the film’s main achievement. It may come as a surprise to many viewers. Cinematically, the understated production is respectable if not scintillating. Aside from a few anachronistic-sounding lines, period authenticity isn’t a problem. Due to a color process called Autochrome, the cinematography has a gauzy, milky look that, while excessive, matches the air of factual indeterminacy. The acting is first-rate. (Although there is some irony in two of the film’s staunchest defenders of American ideals being portrayed by a Scot, James McAvoy, and a Brit, Tom Wilkinson.)
The conspiracy that takes up the majority of screen time is not the plot to topple the Union by killing Lincoln, his Vice President, Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward; but rather the government’s alleged railroading of Surratt (Robin Wright), one of eight people captured and tried for the assassination. The mother of John Surratt, a Confederate courier and associate of John Wilkes Booth, she owned the D.C. boarding house where the accused, including Booth, congregated.
Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a young Union lawyer and war hero, is pressed into defending her before a military tribunal by his mentor, Maryland’s Senator Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson). Aiken’s chief antagonists are Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), the prosecutor and Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and General David Hunter (Colm Meaney), who presides over the rigged court. Initially, Aiken’s anger and thirst for revenge also impede the search for justice; and along with public enmity, he must weather the protestations of his well-connected friends and disapproving love interest.
From the start it’s clear that the officious Stanton, along with many distraught Northerners, believes that keeping the fragile nation together trumps providing justice for Surratt. By quoting a Latin phrase attributed to Cicero, “In times of war, the law falls silent,” Holt implies that it’s a matter of pragmatism. The ideals of our legal system must sometimes bend to the will of those in power, as when Lincoln himself suspended habeas corpus. James Solomon’s screenplay doesn’t entertain other, baser motives and never impugns the government in a shrill manner, despite prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. Surratt’s guilt by association is a foregone conclusion, even as the case against her is circumstantial and it is obvious she is being used to flush out her fugitive son, John.
Solomon’s difficulty wringing real suspense from the transparent courtroom scenes is understandable. Yet the movie never argues for Surratt’s innocence. We’re given no easy answers regarding her culpability. As for her motivation, she announces early on—“I’m a Southerner, a Catholic and most of all a devoted mother.” On the one hand, drawing her character in more detail could disrupt the historical balance “The Conspirator” seeks to maintain. On the other, Surratt can feel like a pawn in the film’s hands, much as she is manipulated by Stanton et al. Solomon and Redford appear more concerned with setting up a conceptual battle of ideas than in crafting the human drama. The upside: they keep a lid on histrionics; the downside: the proceedings remain too abstract and speculative.
Surratt’s Catholicism comes into play in several ways. It’s one more strike against her in the public’s mind—a source of sectarian prejudice. It grounds her dignified comportment and fidelity to causes greater than herself, whether it’s God’s will, her son’s life or, most problematically, the Confederacy. (The movie consistently fails to link her “cause” with slavery, by the way.) And it provides the powerful, reliable symbol of her rosary, which the camera can fix on at emotional moments. Her piety also brings a priest to her cell. Later, when Aiken visits the cleric seeking information about John, we learn he’s been given sanctuary by the church. In a brief exchange, the priest justifies this by declaring God’s law outranks mankind’s. It’s left to the viewer to fill in the blanks and decide how this theological catch-all might apply.
The priest’s cryptic pronouncement and the careful treatment of Surratt’s faith exemplify Redford’s determination to show that her case goes beyond discrimination against any one group in society, whether defined by religion or race, geography or gender. As an essay about an individual’s Constitutional rights, one can imagine “The Conspirator” being screened for first-year law students. Of course, it also has relevance today. No doubt Redford was drawn to the topic in part because of the military tribunals the American government has conducted in the last decade since the so-called war on terror began.
It is appropriate "The Conspirator" was released on April 15th, the anniversary of Lincoln’s death, and also the same week that the director Sidney Lumet died. As a filmmaker, Redford resembles the prolific Lumet insofar as he is a liberal humanist with no discernible directorial style. Like Lumet, he is a workmanlike craftsman drawn to rousing subjects. Thematically, “The Conspirator” overlaps with Lumet’s first picture, “12 Angry Men,” by affirming principles of our legal system we tend to take for granted. After overplaying his hand in the 2007 film” Lions for Lambs,” a clumsy, didactic condemnation of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redford takes a more measured approach here. Although the film runs little risk of being inflammatory or divisive, he deserves credit for addressing such weighty matters.
At the end of “The Conspirator” we learn Aiken stopped practicing law and became the first city editor of The Washington Post, which suggests that if he was ever a wide-eyed idealist, he couldn’t stay one after surviving the war and witnessing such a perversion of our legal system. It is also a fitting link to Redford, who’ll always be remembered for his role as a Post reporter in “All the President’s Men.” That film, of course, was also set in the Capitol during another national crisis when the laws of the land were subverted by powerful men.