Days of future past: The Conspirator **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2011)

War does not determine who is right…only who is left.

-Bertrand Russell

Who was it that originally quipped “There was nothing ‘civil’ about it” in reference to the American Civil War? Truer words have seldom been spoken in reference to that ugly chapter of U.S. history that left 600,000 corpses in its wake. The scars still run deep; witness the controversies stirred up by some of the recent commemorative events related to noting the 2011 Civil War Sesquicentennial.

By the spring of 1865, after four horrifying years, it was all over but the shooting, as far as the war itself was concerned, but the psychic wounds were fresh. And, as we’ve all known since elementary school, it was in this climate of fear and loathing that, on the night of April 14th (with the ink barely dry on Lee’s official surrender at Appomattox), President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending a play with his wife at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

What many Americans are not as cognizant of is that Booth was but one of the players in a conspiracy to kill not only Lincoln, but VP Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. In essence, it was an attempt to take down the federal government in one fell swoop (Seward, bedridden at the time, was stabbed at his home, but survived, and the VP’s would-be killer lost his nerve).

Out of the eight accused co-conspirators who stood trial before a specially appointed government commission (official-speak for “military tribunal”), the most enigmatic figure was D.C. boarding house proprietress Mary Surratt, who holds the dubious distinction as the first woman ever executed by the United States. Her story has been dramatized in Robert Redford’s  The Conspirator, which is the first feature film produced by his American Film Company.

In a sepia-toned opening scene recreating the look of a Matthew Brady photo, we meet Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a Union soldier lying wounded among the dead and dying. After his discharge from military service, he goes into law practice, and his first major case is a doozy. He is asked by his mentor, Senator Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright).

While her son John, who had managed to flee the U.S. and eluded authorities until well after his mother’s trial and execution, appeared to be more directly involved, a combination of circumstantial proximity (the conspirators held numerous meetings at her boarding house) and less-than-flattering press (President Andrew Johnson publicly stated that she “…kept the nest that hatched the egg”) assured that her attorney had a tough row to hoe. As portrayed in the film, Surratt retains an air of almost serene inscrutability throughout the trial. Wright embodies this dichotomy quite well.

After choking back his initial abhorrence at the very idea of defending Surratt, Aiken’s formidable challenge is how to build a strong defense under the restrictions imposed by military tribunal procedure (there is no entitlement to a jury of your peers, for starters). The man charged with assembling the tribunal wasn’t much help; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did everything in his power to push for an expedient trial and executions. Kevin Kline gives an interesting performance as Stanton; I could swear that he’s consciously channeling Dick Cheney’s voice and mannerisms.

And the parallels don’t stop there. Although Redford has been playing dumb in the several recent TV interviews I saw, denying any analogical intentions, it’s inevitable that any halfway historically astute viewer is going to notice the pointed similarities brought to the fore in James Solomon’s script between the dramatic shift in the nation’s sociopolitical climate post-Lincoln assassination in 1865 and post-9/11 in 2001 (Bob Redford ain’t dumb, nor is he apolitical).

Most of these didactic are telegraphed in the exchanges between McAvoy and Kline. Stanton tells Aiken at one point, “Someone must be held accountable. The People want that.” To which Aiken replies, “It’s not justice you’re after; it’s revenge.” Operation Iraqi Freedom, anyone? Several of their conversations hammer home the reminder (and it’s a good one) that, no matter how grave the “national crisis” may be, the basic constitutionally-assured civil rights of American citizens do not come with a factory-equipped “on/off” switch.

One interesting parallel arose just this week, when it was announced that Wikileaks suspect Bradley Manning (still awaiting trial) was transferred from solitary confinement at the brig at Quantico to a medium-security facility at Leavenworth. In the film, Aiken appeals (successfully) to the tribunal that Surratt be transferred from the draconian Old Capitol Prison (where she was never allowed outside) to another facility, where she was permitted outside to take fresh air and exercise (the other accused co-conspirators were initially kept below decks on two ironclads anchored in the Potomac River).

McAvoy and Wright have great chemistry. Evan Rachel Wood makes the most of her brief turn as Surratt’s daughter; she’s a wonderfully intuitive actress. While I wouldn’t place this film in the same echelon as  a Breaker Morant, Redford has made something that will please history buffs, yet be eminently watchable to others. I will admit that his tendency to take an austere approach in his film making has left me cold on many occasions. But Redford’s hand is assured; his art comes from a thoughtful and intelligent place. And sadly, that has become the exception to the rule in modern American cinema.

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