Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is an engaging and suspenseful—if at times heavy-handed—historical courtroom docudrama about the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a woman accused of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth and other Confederate sympathizers in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Representing her is lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an ex-soldier from the Union side. Though Booth will probably be well known to those with even a smattering of U.S. history under their belt, I suspect Surratt’s name will be less familiar (at least so it was for this viewer).
The film explores the tensions between constitutional rights and political expediency. Surratt runs a boarding-house where Booth and the other conspirators, including her son John (Johnny Simmons), allegedly met to plan the murder. While there is little to no substantive evidence linking her to the plot, the question is whether she was in on the group’s clandestine meetings. The prosecution, spearheaded by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), wants to quell the civil unrest that has swept across the nation in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. Stanton wants to solve the matter swiftly by scapegoating Surratt. He thus arranges for her to be brought before a military tribunal (since any aggressive act by a Confederate could be perceived by the Union as an “act of war”), thereby suspending the accused’s normal privilege of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Aiken’s character development is at the film’s core. Despite being her defense attorney, he initially is convinced that Surratt’s guilt is a foregone conclusion. However, he comes to believe in her innocence, especially after learning that the prosecution has bribed witnesses and doctored evidence to try to ensure a conviction. Unfortunately, for Aiken it is essentially a lose-lose situation. Lose the case, and he’ll be seen as incompetent; win, and he’ll be perceived as a traitor by his Union colleagues.
The film casts a jaundiced eye on the judicial system that is every bit as apropos now as it was then. It reminds us that the balance of power supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution is only as good as the politicians who uphold it or undermine it. Stanton and the other executors of the military tribunal claim that their intention is to keep the peace, but the film’s goal is to show us that this is a carefully conceived ruse to disguise their true intentions: to take revenge against any and all supporters of the Confederate cause, even if that means kiling an innocent woman. In other words, it’s political narcissism at its ugliest.
This all makes for an interesting history lesson, though Redford’s self-consciously didactic approach may also be one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. It’s just a bit hard to sustain a two-hour drama whose story revolves around the presentation of evidence inside a courtroom. I was reminded of Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case—arguably one of that master’s weakest films—which suffered from similar choppiness at times. Still, The Conspirator is a boldly presented narrative that eschews the normal politicizing propaganda in favor of a more probing and critical approach. And for that, Redford should be commended. Talking heads, take note!
Joe’s Grade: B