Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Film Review | The Conspirator
by Thomas Delapa
It was a Southerner, William Faulkner, who said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
And so too with the Civil War, 150 years hence. With modern America’s polarizing battles on states’ rights about everything from health care to immigration law, there may be more disunion in these United States than at any time since the Vietnam War.
Set on the eve of Reconstruction, The Conspirator sets out to reconstruct the little-known, but telling, events that followed in the wake of Lincoln’s fateful assassination. Any smart 5th grader can tell you that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, but how many of us know that he was only one member of a larger conspiracy that aimed to send most of Lincoln’s cabinet to kingdom come?
At the very least, Robert Redford’s weighty courtroom drama is downright rebellious in its thoughtful and reasoned pace, lined up against the scattershot caliber of today’s Hollywood. In this his best film since Quiz Show, Redford marshals winning performances from his cast, led by Robin Wright and Atonement’s James McAvoy.
One doesn’t need to be Shelby Foote to feel the 21st century reverberations in the way Redford and his screenwriters shape the story of Mary Surratt (Wright), the one woman put on trial for the conspiracy. Though she was a citizen—if a Southern sympathizer—the government ordered that she be tried in a military tribunal, not a civilian court. So although the evidence was patently circumstantial, her defense was next to impossible. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) was out for swift revenge—and to make sure those damn, cotton-pickin’ Rebs learned their lesson.
Redford takes up Surratt’s cause, much in the same wary way that her young, inexperienced Northern lawyer, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) does. Reluctantly taking her case, Aiken alienates his friends and his betrothed (Alexis Bledel) in his fight to save Surratt from the gallows. Like Lee at Gettysburg, Aiken faces major odds, especially with Stanton deviously tipping the scales behind the scenes.
So while you’re witnessing the diligent acting from McAvoy and company, Redford’s pace will allow you time to weigh the strong evidence of irony afoot. For a trial about an insidious conspiracy, Stanton—who could be a bearded Donald Rumsfeld—is busy rigging his own conspiracy. We can also strenuously object at the way Surratt’s constitutional rights are trampled upon, this in the days following a horrific war expressly meant to save the republic and its Constitution.
While didactic, and a mite dry, The Conspirator makes its plea for truth and fairness, set off against dim, stuffy interiors that blot out the few rays of truth. The (im)moral of the story is that, in times of war, politics trump justice. But Redford serves to remind us as individuals—whether blue, red or gray—of the cowardly and dishonest choices we make when we march in lockstep to the drumbeat of expedience.