The Conspirator Revisits a Pivotal Chapter of American Law and War

Director Robert Redford delves into the case behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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Claudette Barius / The Conspirator

Robin Wright in The Conspirator

The news put Americans in a state of shock; they knew that, after that unprecedented day, they would never be the same. With this dastardly attack, and after the greatest loss of civilian lives the U.S. had ever known, the federal government abridged the liberties of those it suspected of giving aid and comfort to the nation’s enemies. It tried civilians in military courts, deprived them of due process, suspended the right of habeus corpus. The few lawyers to speak up in defense of the accused were overruled or drowned out by high government officials who spun fantasies into imminent threats, predicting anarchy if the suspects were not railroaded to conviction. And when it couldn’t find the real perpetrators of the attack, the government went after people who might slake the country’s thirst for righteous revenge.

The news, of course, was of Abraham Lincoln’s bloody death, a few days after the Civil War ended. The vindictive government officials included Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The civilian on trial in a military court was Mary Surratt, whose son John was part of the plot that killed Lincoln. Despite a spirited defense by a young war hero, Frederick Aiken, she was convicted of treason by a Commission that recommended she be sentenced to life in prison. President Johnson overruled that sentence — as well as the writ of habeus corpus Aiken had secured — and on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hanged. She was the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.

The most troubling and satisfying aspect of The Conspirator, director Robert Redford’s account of the Surratt case, is the comparison it draws between the actions taken by the Andrew Johnson administration immediately after the event of Apr. 14, 1865 — the first assassination of a U.S. President — and the Bush Administration’s actions in the months and years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In this movie (produced by online-trading billionaire Joe Ricketts’ American Film Company), Stanton is the stand-in for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; he proposes lurid theories of revolution and, when challenged, replies, “Who’s to say these things couldn’t happen?” In a direct parallel to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq as a crowd-pleasing alternative to the fruitless search for Osama bin Laden, one Surratt sympathizer says that Stanton & Co. are trying Mary “because they can’t find John.”

This may sound like catnip to Bush-whackers, and an outrage or a yawn to everybody else. But this retelling of a crucial, poorly-remembered chapter of American law and war has enough atmosphere, stalwart acting and suspense to appeal to the mass of moviegoers, even those indifferent to the primacy of justice over vengeance. In Redford’s starchy but provocative version, Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is persuaded by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) at her trial. Screenwriters James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein have added an Aiken girlfriend (Alexis Bledel) and a pal (Justin Long) for home cooking, but the movie story is essentially the real one. Aiken presses his case against prosecuting attorney Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), quizzes John Surratt associate Louis Weichmann (Glee’s Jonathan Groff) and searches for helpful evidence in Mary’s boarding house, where her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) still lives.

Thirty years after his directorial debut with the Oscar-winning Ordinary People, Redford comes to this period piece with a visual style that is both stately and obvious. In Mary’s prison cell, shafts of blinding light form the window giving her the third degree. Redford swathes the proceedings in artfully desaturated color and soft-focus back-lighting — just enough to let viewers know they’re in the 19th century, not enough to distract them from the story. He might have chosen his leading player more wisely: McAvoy, the young Scottish actor who’s been impressive as a romantic proletarian (Atonement), a roguish journalist (the BBC series State of Play) and a wimp turned action hero (Wanted), plays Aiken as a bit too callow and tentative.

The rest of the cast does fine by their roles. Kline and Huston provide different sides of the same government coin: one a zealot for finding villains and scapegoats, and never mind which is which; the other as a dispassionate advocate for his client, and who at the end quotes Cicero’s maxim that “in times of war, the law falls silent.” The shining star is Wright, who brings drama and beauty to every role just by staring into the camera. She gets to offer more here: the sullen, fiery dignity of a woman who is as sure of her allegiance to the defeated Confederacy (she calls Lincoln “your President”) as she is of her innocence — and her fate at the grasping hands of Stanton and his government gang.

Wright’s performance is the key to a movie that pulses with the sick thrill of historical discovery. The Conspirator reminds us that. when we surrendered so many of our Constitutional rights and judgments after 9/11, it wasn’t the first time. How can we be sure it will be the last?