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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Conspirator

Robert Redford tells the story of Lincoln's death and Mary Surratt

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9/11 wasn't the first time in American history that a shocking act of terrorism was followed by military tribunals and high officials rating national security over the Bill of Rights. That's the not-so-subtle message of The Conspirator, director Robert Redford's staging of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the trial of Mary Surratt, the lone woman charged in the conspiracy.

For someone who has advanced the cause of indie filmmaking as founder of the Sundance festival, Redford remains committed to old-school Hollywood drama. In The Conspirator, this means swelling orchestras of strings at all heart-pounding moments and the trimming of messy reality to fit the feature film format. The story Redford tells is compelling nonetheless, thrilling in those opening scenes that have played over and over in the American imagination. We all know the story but have seldom seen it visualized so well: The popular actor John Wilkes Booth forces his way into the presidential box at the Ford's Theatre, shoots Lincoln in the head and leaps dramatically to the stage below, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!" Meanwhile, the secretary of state is stabbed by one of Booth's confederates in his sickbed while an attempt on the vice president goes awry.

Booth was tracked down and killed and his co-conspirators were rounded up quickly under martial law regulations and brought before a military commission in a fortress near Washington, where they were kept shackled, hooded and chained to iron balls. Among them was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Her son was the lone associate of Booth to slip the dragnet, and she owned the boarding house where Booth planned the assassination. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), a grim man committed to holding the Union together regardless of cost, is determined to hang her along with the more obviously guilty parties. Surratt maintains her innocence.

In Redford's telling, an initially reluctant man of principle steps forward to become Surratt's advocate at a kangaroo trial by military officers chosen by Stanton for their obsequious devotion to him, not their commitment to justice. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a battlefield hero, at first resents his assignment to defend a traitor. His sneering attitude toward his client is only reinforced by her devotion to the South and, perhaps, her Roman Catholicism, which was not viewed favorably by the era's Protestant establishment. What eventually wins Aiken over is the obvious unfairness of proceedings that resemble a show trial in an authoritarian state rather than the rule of law as envisioned by the founders of the republic. The court barely tolerates the concept of a defense for the defendants, and the prosecutor is shameless. He is willing to see Surratt hang—unless she gives up information on the whereabouts of her son.

A note of moral ambiguity is sounded in the screenplay, written with an accurate echo of the spoken language of Civil War America: Was Surratt guilty, and if so, of what exactly? Surely she knew her son and his actor friend were up to something; maybe she was truthful when she finally admitted knowing of their earlier scheme to kidnap Lincoln but not their plan to kill him? Maybe most mothers are always in denial about their sons?

The acting is good throughout, especially Wright as the wan but inwardly radiant Surratt and likable McAvoy as the youthful, headstrong Aiken. Tom Wilkinson also gives a memorable supporting performance as Aiken's distinguished mentor, Sen. Reverdy Johnson, depicted as a statesman more than a politician.

Both sides make their case. For Stanton, the preservation of the nation in times of grave danger means that the nation's principles can be suspended; Aiken eventually embraces the view that without its principles, the nation is already lost. The argument would continue in the 20th century through both world wars and erupt again in the aftermath of 9/11. We probably haven't heard the last of it.

Opens April 15 at the Downer Theatre.

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