The Conspirator is a mixed bag. It’s a strangely stilted presentation, lacking passion. Yet it addresses an historical event whose issues have stirred much passion in the present day. The issue then (with reverberations to the now) was the use of military tribunals to try civilians. The historical trial of the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination, if portrayed accurately, was an abomination. The deck was certainly stacked against them with the primary driver being to “bring the country together” and have quick closure after the assassination and the winding down of the civil war.
The trial focuses on a reluctant young military lawyer who is urged to take over the case from his mentor (his mentor being a southerner, was thus thought to add another strike against the possibility of a fair trial for Mary Surratt. Surratt was arrested (along with legitimate suspects), because her son, the real conspirator, had successfully removed himself to Canada. His mother was the sacrificial lamb: if the real conspirator could not be found, the stand-in would have to do..
The lawyer who defends her at first believes her guilty and resents even having to defend her. Eventually he comes around – at least to the position that he doesn’t know if she’s guilty, but the right to a fair trial – by a jury of her peers – is a cornerstone of American jurisprudence. James McAvoy plays her attorney (Frederick Aiken), rather woodenly, I thought. Fortunately, the supporting cast picks up some of the slack, especially: Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), an almost saint-like performance, as a woman who refuses to sacrifice her son to save herself; Kevin Kline as the duplicitous Attorney General Edwin Stanton, as a “patriot” who subverted the system for what he thought were justifiable causes (the ends justify the means); Tom Wilkinson plays the southern lawyer who rightly see that the fact of her representation by a southerner would do Surratt no good; Evan Rachel Wood plays Surratt’s daughter who ends up testifying against her brother to save her mother.
Directed by Robert Redford, it’s worthwhile for lazy bastards like me who hardly ever read actual history anymore, preferring to take what I can get from historical works of literature or film. The film first came across my radar at TIFF ’10 where it was part of the GALA programme. I decided that, this would be a “wait for DVD” film, and I believe I had that just about right.