April 25, 2011

The Conspirator

Even though The Conspirator is a historical courtroom drama set in 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Robert Redford's film clearly has parallels in recent history and current events.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) is eager to punish the perpetrators at all costs. Former U.S. Attorney General and then Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) appoints Civil War hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) as unwilling defender to Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Mrs. Surratt was the only woman charged in the assassination plot. She owned the boarding house where the conspirators frequently met. She lived there with her son John Surratt and her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood). The case unfolds from Aiken's viewpoint: from his initial reluctance to take on the case, his search for the truth, and how he begins to doubt Mary's guilt, and his efforts to save his client's life . The trial also becomes his fight for civil liberties and people's right to due process. Even his wife Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) and friend Nicholas Baker (Justin Long) aren't convinced that he's doing the right thing. Shades of our post 9-11 world, where the Patriot Act, and the Iraqi invasion were rationalized by the Bush administration as necessary evils. And anybody who dared speak out against the War or in favor of Constitutional rights were labeled unpatriotic.

Instead of a jury of their peers, the plotters are tried in a military tribunal headed by Colm Meaney's Major General David Hunter. The government's case rested on the testimonies of John Lloyd (Stephen Root) and Lewis Weichmann(Jonathan Groff). Danny Huston plays prosecuting attorney Joseph Holt, who delivers a chilling line towards the end: "In times of war, the law falls silent."

I found the movie compelling---I'm sure the snoring guy in front of me would disagree---not just for the legal battle, the mother-son story, but especially because of the larger conspiracy for an expedient trial and punishment to satisfy the nation's thirst for swift justice and/or vengeance. The superb performances (especially Robin Wright's proud, tragic Mary, who never fully convinces us of her guilt or innocence), beautiful costumes, authentic production design and wonderful cinematography added to my enjoyment of the film. I am looking forward to more historical movies from The American Film Company.

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