By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: The Conspirator
U.S.: Robert Redford, 2010
The late Sidney Lumet, I think, would have liked Robert Redford‘s new movie, The Conspirator, a film that, like Lumet’s courtroom masterpieces 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, deals dramatically and memorably with the vagaries of the law, and with the wars between justice and injustice, between vengeance and mercy, between truth and prejudice — but one that, this time, doesn’t necessarily show us one good man (like 12 Angry Men’s Juror No. 8), prevailing against the many.
Producer-director Redford’s picture is set in 1865, in the aftermath of The Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell). And it follows, with a clear eye and a heavy artistic commitment. the famous case of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, superb), the mother of one of the Booth cabal, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons).
Mrs. Surratt was a women who found herself accused of conspiracy and put on trial for her life with the others, mainly because she owned and ran the boarding house where they met. She was a passionate Southerner, but there was no real evidence linking her to the assassination, and in fact, it seems unlikely that Mrs. Surratt would have had a place in the plot, or that Surratt would have bragged to his mother beforehand about planning to kill the President of the United States.
Besides, even if she was involved — and, in real life, she may have been — she was a woman, she was a mother, she was older, and she had obviously lost everything: reputation, livelihood, health, honor, and worst of all, she had lost her son, who never came back to take the blame and save her life.
Yet, despite all this, in the film, Lincoln‘s coldly partisan and relentless Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, almost unrecognizable and very powerful) wants to make sure that Mary is found guilty. He wants her condemned to death by hanging, because he feels that legal killings, as many as he can muster, are the ways to heal a country in crisis. Though his philosophy is markedly at odds with Lincoln’s own oft-stated Christian humanist compassion, Stanton does everything possible to provide those deaths, every last one of them, beginning with his insistence on a military trial rather than a civil one.
Contending against Stanton’s representative and creature in court, the slick prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), are, first, Mary’s more liberal defender, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and when Johnson leaves, his protégé, young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, in the best performance I have ever seen him give).
Aiken is a Union Army veteran, newly returned to his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Alexis Bedel), and he is at first unenthusiastic and reluctant about taking the case, as well as pretty well convinced of his client‘s guilt. Eventually, as more and more doors are slammed in his face, and as the noose is knotted more firmly around the neck of Mary — a woman bitterly resigned, hurt, suspicious, and unwilling even to accept court help from her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) — he becomes obsessed with saving her, and, probably in his mind, with saving the honor of the law as well.
Stanton is equally determined that his predetermined sentence will be fully executed, his will be done, and that Mary will become the first woman, and the first mother, ever put to death by the United States Government. A dubious distinction, and he fights ruthlessly to earn it. Aiken fights as passionately to rescue her.
This story, though the facts have been at least somewhat changed or “dramatized” for the film, remains strong drama. On its own, it is a terrific historical tale, well scripted by James Solomon. The cast is first-rate and obviously deeply dedicated, and they are, all of them, very fine. Redford obviously made this movie with all his heart. The picture, economically shot, has a grim, dusty look, and, for me, it also looks a little too TV-historical-dramatic-ish. But the story and the actors are so good, it doesn’t matter.
A confession now of personal predilection. I am against capital punishment, and I believe that as long as one innocent person was unjustly executed and falsely branded forever a murderer — and we know now, thanks to advances in DNA testing, that there have been many — legal execution is an abomination, and should be replaced by any fair government with life imprisonment without possibility of parole, along with enforced reparations to the victims.
I say this knowing that if a loved one of mine were killed intentionally, I would want to kill the monster that did it with my own hands, especially if the evidence seemed certain. But I would be wrong.
Perhaps only a part of the movie’s tale is true, though, according to the (disputed) record, it’s probably a large part. So, Damn you to hell, Edwin Stanton, and even if there isn’t one, and you managed to slip away unpunished — you have been thoroughly well indicted, prosecuted and damned here, in The Conspirator, by Redford, by Solomon, and by all the film artists and actors who made this film with them, especially Robin Wright, James McAvoy and Kevin Kline.
And damn all those who, like the movie’s Stanton, mistake power for the right, mistake cruelty for justice, mistake brutality for firmness, and mistake personal bias, prejudice and predilection for the law. May the Secretary of War lie forever in some cold, barren and comfortless grave, stripped naked and forever weaponless, in the bones and ashes and ignominy he deserves.
There is no need for a SPOILER ALERT.
We all know, or we all should know, that Mary Surratt was hanged. There was no Juror Number Eight to save her, and no universal director and scripter like Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose to guide his arguments and to change everyone‘s minds. God watched apparently, but did nothing, for the time being.
But there is an interesting coda to the events, and it’s shown here before the end-titles: an interesting third act for Fredrick Aiken, and one especially ironic in the light of Robert Redford‘s previous career in movies. I will leave you to discover it for yourselves.