The Conspirator

The Conspirator

Ask any of my friends and they will all agree that I am easily one of the biggest “Lincoln” nuts on the planet.  I have always appreciated the 16th president of these United States not only for his ability as a great orator, an outspoken supporter of civil rights and an exceptional wartime president, but also as an extreme badass.  So when I heard Robert Redford had decided to tackle the story of Mary Surratt, mother of accused co-conspirator John Surratt, written by James D. Solomon my interest was piqued to say the least.

Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a native southerner, owned a boarding house in Washington D.C. in which John Wilkes Booth, Mary’s son John Surratt and countless others met and conspired to kill President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State William Seward.  After the murder of Abraham Lincoln, John Surratt fled.  In leu of John, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) tried his mother Mary as a co-conspirator in order to placate a saddened and enraged nation in need of someone to blame for this great tragedy.  He charged his friend Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) with the task of defending Mary.  Johnson passed it to his young protegé, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) who, with some struggle, took to the case.

However, The Conspirator is not the story of Mary Surratt or even of her lawyer, Union veteran Frederick Aiken.  It is, in fact, the story of the grave injustice committed upon the legal system that both Frederick Aiken and Abraham Lincoln (a former lawyer himself) held so dear.

The film, smartly, does not take a side in regards to Mary Surratt’s innocent.  Instead, its focus is on the rights the Union fought to preserve in the Civil War.  Mary Surratt was put on trial in front of a military tribunal made up entirely of high-ranking officers of the Union Army, many of which were personal friends of Abraham Lincoln himself and thus, were out for blood.  The prosecution was given almost a month to prepare their case while the defense was only given a few days.  Witnesses were tampered with, as were the basic human rights provided to Mary Surratt in her time on trial.  In the climactic moments of the film, a judge asks Frederick Aiken if he believes Mary Surratt innocent and Frederick replies “I don’t know, but I believe she should be afforded the same rights and privileges that I fought for four years to protect.”

McAvoy, Wright and Kline all turn in exceptional performances.  McAvoy brings an inner struggle and wisdom beyond his years to the part that show why he is one of the most sought after young talents in Hollywood.  Kline again disappears into a role, becoming unrecognizable behind the Amish beard and tiny glasses.  But the true hero of The Conspirator is Wright.  It would have been very easy for her to try to turn Mary Surratt into a heroic character being victimized by the system, but instead, she chose to play it in a way that better serves the ideals of the film then it does to sway the audience to believe in her innocence.  She says little, but the pain she feels is clear none the less.  Robert Redford also deserves a fair bit of credit.  It would have been simple for him to turn this film into a mystery story, depicting a lawyer uncovering the truth about his client (a la the recent film, “The Lincoln Lawyer”), but instead he opts to keep the focus not on the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt, but on the law and its intent and in doing so intelligently connects it to a struggle this nation has very recently faced.

Frederick is not fighting for Mary’s release, but for her rights as an American which are being violated by de-facto leader Edwin Stanton who is, admittedly, on a witch hunt.  It’s not hard to see the thread of Stanton’s logic connect to that of the Bush administration who, with atrocities like Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, used terrorism as an excuse to roll back numerous rights and liberties of private citizens in the name of keeping us safe, completely ignoring the fact that in doing so, they’ve robbed us of the basic freedoms this nation was founded on.  What happened in that 1865 courtroom was about vengeance, not justice, as Aiken often points out.  The Constitution must serve everyone equally or it will serve no one.

This afternoon I watched an episode of one of my favorite television series ever, Boston Legal entitled “The Court Supreme” in which James Spader’s character Alan Shore goes before the Supreme Court to defend a man with an IQ of 70 who was found guilty of raping a child and sentenced to death with insufficient proof of guilt.  The Supreme Court makes it clear that his job is to argue the illegality of sentencing a child rapist to death and that his innocence is of little importance to them.  Alan looses his temper quickly.  “You’ve transformed this court from being a governmental branch devoted to civil rights and liberties into a protector of discrimination, a guardian of big business and today you seek to kill a mentally disabled man. The Supreme Court was intended to be free and unadulterated by politics.  It is now dominated by it.”  I can’t help but see Frederick Aiken (who went on to be the first City Editor of the Washington Post) as a true to life historic ancestor to the character of Alan Shore, fighting for the rights we as Americans all deserve and that Abraham Lincoln spent his life and ultimately died defending.

RATING: 8/10

~ by Andrew Craig on April 26, 2011.

4 Responses to “The Conspirator”

  1. I don’t know what it was exactly that caught my eye, perhaps its a lack of non-popcorn flick in my healthy diet of movies, but when I saw the trailer on T.V. I couldn’t help but want to see this movie.

  2. The simple fact that it involved Lincoln was all I needed. The next few years is full of Lincoln-y goodness for me. Between this, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Spielberg’s Lincoln movie starring Daniel Day Lewis, Im gonna be a happy nerd the next few years.

  3. It’s completely frustrating that I live in an area that requires a road trip to see this movie. Are we in New Hampshire not refined enough for Redford films? Have to wait for DVD. 😦

  4. Thats a little surprising Amy. I thought this was a wide release film. Either way, it should be out on DVD by end of summer. When it comes out check it out, especially if you are a history nerd like I am.

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