by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
“The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford, written by James Solomon, starring James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, and Robin Wright.
On this 150th anniversary of the opening of the Civil War, Robert Redford and writer James Soloman have created a beautifully shot, intense legal drama of the period that parallels much of the U.S. administration’s thinking since 9/11. The theme of their new film, “The Conspirator,” is the arrest and conviction of those who conspired to take down the government. At the same time, the film is notable for its strong story-line about a mother, Mary Surratt’s (Robin Wright) deep love for her son and her willingness to sacrifice herself to save him.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a former Union captain who saw many of his comrades slaughtered. Aiken returns to his law practice, as the junior partner to Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, in a rather thankless role). Johnson has foisted the defense of Mary Surratt, a Southerner, on Aiken.
The film shows a victory celebration attended by Washington, D.C., society, politicians—including a smarmy, boorish Secretary of State Edward Stanton (Kevin Kline)—army officers, and their ladies. Someone asks if President Lincoln will be there. No, the president prefers the theater to a party.
That night, a man breaks into the home of Vice President Andrew Johnson (Dennis Clark) and tries to murder him. He survives; the would-be assassin escaped. At the same time, the actor, John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), sneaks into Lincoln’s box at the theater and shoots him in the back of the head, jumps onto the stage shouting a “rebel” slogan, and breaks his ankle.
Booth is later shot dead, hiding in a burning barn. The conspirators had roomed at Mary Surratt’s boarding house and held meetings there. Aiken discovers that Booth was a friend of John Surratt, Mary’s son.
Redford filmed the indoor scenes to give the impression of natural light—sunlight filtering through dusty windows into dark rooms. He also makes us feel we are part of the mob moving along with police and Union soldiers carrying a wounded Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom) through a noisy, milling crowd. Besides being an emotional scene, it was interesting that they approached at least two houses before someone, finally realizing what the uproar was about, let them in.
Aiken, a patriot and ex-Union officer, is not happy defending the woman behind the slaying of the president. Though he detests Surratt, he balks at trying her—a U.S. citizen and a civilian—in a military tribunal, which is what Stanton demands. Aiken states, “Our forefathers wrote the Constitution to warn us against trying civilians in military courts. You have judged Mary Surratt guilty before she’s proved innocent.”
Robin Wright makes for a commanding Mary Surratt. Dressed in black with a voluminous black veil over her face, steely and jut-jawed, you never once forget that she is a Catholic and the widow of a Confederate soldier. But is she the head of a group of eight conspirators aiming to bring down the Union?
When Surratt’s conspirators march into the military compound wearing burlap hoods and shackles, which they also wear in their cell, you can’t help but think of the prisoners held today in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, and previously at Abu Ghraib. Redford’s direction can get heavy-handed. He makes sure the audience doesn’t miss the parallels between these trials and today’s, of U.S. citizens and innocent foreigners imprisoned without charge and tried in military courts; the fear and anxiety over catching and killing “terrorists.”
“We can’t put the tragedy behind us,” someone says. Aiken interrogates Surratt’s daughter, Ann (Evan Rachel Wood); he inspects the boarding house and finds a picture of Booth; and learns that her brother had run off to Canada before the assassination. Aiken also discovers that the plan was only to kidnap Lincoln for a ransom in exchange for Confederate prisoners; not to kill him.
Aiken must now convince Surratt to give up her son. It is he who should stand trial, not her. Ann testifies, implicating her brother, sacrificing him for her emotionally overwrought mother. The suspense is riveting. The trial over, the film seems to speed up; it has you on the edge of your seat as Mary’s fate is decided. It rests on the judgment of those who feel they are above the law.
On this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which led to the end of slavery, nothing has changed. The U.S. government continues to bend, break, and ignore the Constitution, proving to us who pay their salaries that justice must be constantly fought for.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.