Mark Reviews Movies

The Conspirator


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Redford

Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright Penn, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Norman Reedus, Kevin Kline

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violent content)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 4/15/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 14, 2011

Director Robert Redford's The Conspirator makes no case for the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt in the participation of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, though it certainly brings enough reasonable doubt to the case against her that we're left wondering one way or another. Such was not the atmosphere surrounding her military tribunal, with a nation mourning the untimely and violent death of the leader that brought it through a devastating civil war—a country at the time still divided by anger over the results. It was that fury that fueled John Wilkes Booth's hand toward what he perceived as revenge, and a similar sentiment, the movie argues, pushed the powers-that-be to try Surratt in a manner that would most likely result in a conviction.

It's a fine, if simple, argument that James Solomon's screenplay makes, envisioning an entire military court proceeding as political theater—to show those in the North that they mean business about unity and to scare those in the South who might have similar bloody thoughts. Dramatically, the movie works in places at bringing forth a sense of helpless indignation toward a hopeless cause, though emotionally, while making a clear case, it's decidedly stilted.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) served in the Union army and is present at a party held by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) the night Lincoln is shot, his Secretary of State is stabbed, and one villain fails to garner the resolve to kill the Vice President. After rounding up a host of suspected conspirators, Stanton decides to hold the eight suspects, including Surratt (Robin Wright Penn), on trial in a military proceeding. Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is Surratt's legal counsel and insists that Aiken serve in representing his client at the tribunal.

Aiken is skeptical of his new client, believing, like most others, that she, as the owner of the boardinghouse where Booth and his clan plotted, must have been involved or at least held knowledge of plan and did nothing. There is no presumption of innocence for the defendant—no burden of proof for the prosecution—and those facts, at least, are enough for Aiken, who quickly starts earning sideways glances from his friends and his sweetheart Sarah (Alexis Bledel), to look just far enough past his own presuppositions and defend Surratt to the best of his abilities.

Solomon's script holds the most weight in its depiction of the trial itself, with a procession of shady characters—from prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), who's at Stanton's beck and call, to Louis Weichmann (Jonathan Groff), who protests perhaps a bit too much that his trips to the capital of the Confederacy were entirely innocent, to John Lloyd (Stephen Root), whose affinity for drink seems to affect his reliability even while testifying—and circumstantial evidence—notes and whispers and a near-sighted witness. They are the machinations of a railroad in motion (making cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel's blinding light through the windows of the courthouse (naturalism extended to the point of expressionism) perhaps the most ironic thing about the proceedings).

The courtroom scenes, while not above the usual outbursts, play on the contradictory nature that Surratt's little-publicized story presents. Here is a woman who is, by her own admission in this telling, sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy (and all that it represents, we assume) perhaps made a scapegoat—perhaps not. It's the question—the possibility that, in a fervor for justice, the wrong person is punished—that is haunting, and Solomon supposes a logical motive for her apparent stubbornness in her fugitive son, who could be standing in her place had she and her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) aided in his capture. Stanton and Holt openly admit to Aiken that they would certainly consider the son hanging in his mother's place, as long as someone hangs for it and soon. For Surratt, this is not an option.

Outside the courtroom, Solomon is a bit too on-the-nose with dialogue, leaving as little shadow of doubt to the injustice of the whole affair as there is to the prosecution's case. Aiken confronts his legal adversaries with to-the-point speeches of justice and revenge, the proper setting for a trial such as this, and what the whole thing means to the Union he and others fought and died to preserve. His personal relationships predictably fall apart in the face of his new professional role, and the false sense of suspense surrounding the outcome only heightens a sense of sensationalism.

There's a more considered debate to be had about the historical, legal, and political precedents of the events in The Conspirator. They're hinted at in the coda, wherein we learn of how Surratt's son, whom Aiken vehemently and convincingly contends had a greater role than his mother, is set free, partially as a result of the argument Aiken made in his mother's favor. This is also a haunting notion.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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