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Film Review – The Conspirator

DVD Outlet: MR VIDEO, Nelson Mandela Ave
Film: THE CONSPIRATOR
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay: James D. Solomon; Gregory Bernstein
Players: James McAvoy; Robin Wright; Kevin Kline; Tom Wilkinson; Justin Long
Genre: historical; true-life drama
Rating: ****

Robert Redford is a director who enjoys the power of words and is dedicated to exposing injustices or unethical practices, particularly by institutions or the state. Although his film Lions for Lambs did not receive great acclaim and many viewers thought the action was too slow, I considered it to be a thoughtful analysis of the conflicting power interests at work in America during the Afghanistan campaign. This film is set at the end of the Civil War so although Redford reveals the injustice meted out to Mary Surratt (Wright), as a result of war unfortunately there was no chance of redress or compensation for Mary, a woman who ran a boarding house in Washington and was charged with three other men for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to shoot Abraham Lincoln.
The film becomes a court-room drama and the protagonist, Frederick Aitken (McAvoy) is a young lawyer charged with defending Surratt. Recently de-mobbed from active military service for the Unionists, Aitken is eager to leave war behind and to resume his cerebral occupation as a lawyer. He finds, however, that he is plunged into a different kind of conflict, thrust into the middle of a welter of conflicting feelings and animosities, political skullduggery, plus aspirant politicians and the military, both bent upon squashing any threat of counter-revolution.
One of the strengths of the film is the acting ability of the principal characters. McAvoy is central to the success of the film: he assumes the responsibility for defending Mary reluctantly and is, initially, illogically convinced of her guilt. His character development is impressive as McAvoy and a powerful screenplay move the character from reluctance to passionate defence of a woman whose guilt is inconclusive but who is obviously designated a scapegoat to deter counter-revolutionary forces from gathering momentum. In fact, he risks, even jettisons, a successful legal career by putting her interests ahead of his own. The credits inform us that he left the legal profession to become the first city editor of The Washington Post.
Wright is powerful as Surratt, a silent dignified woman who is unwilling to give anything away since her son is also cited as a conspirator but has escaped custody. She, like Aitken, sacrifices her own safety in her attempts to protect her son.  Her line of defence is to prevent any possibility of attacking him. Kline plays Edward Stanton, a powerful underling to Andrew Johnson, the man who assumed the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination. This was a precarious period politically, particularly because Lincoln was a powerful rallying point for the Union and his death left a power vacuum when feelings after the defeat of the south were still running high.
Secretary of State, Edward Stanton (Kline) is ruthless, determined to stage a military trial and to obtain the death penalty for all conspirators to send a powerful political message to the population. The Attorney-General and Senator for Maryland (Wilkinson) is a smart legal operator but an even smarter politician. The defence of Surratt is initially his responsibility but is quickly passed to Aitken, his subordinate, when he realises that his southern origins will prove deleterious to an efficient defence. He thereafter offers astute advice to his subordinate, which ultimately demonstrates stronger political pragmatism than adherence to the rule of law.
When Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, the actor allegedly stood on stage and yelled “Sic semper tyrannus”, the state motto for Maryland. The translation into English, ‘Thus always for tyrants’ should resonate with a modern audience, witnessing on the daily news the various political upheavals in the world today.
Surratt asks her lawyer at one point, ‘Have you ever cared for something greater than yourself, Mr Aitken?’ This is probably the strongest message in the film. She cares for her son more than for her own life; eventually, he cares more for justice and the rule of law than he does for his own career. Indeed, Aitken sacrifices a fiancée, a legal career, and any idealism he may have salvaged from his four years as a soldier for the Unionists.
The trial itself is a lost cause with a predetermined outcome: witnesses are browbeaten to lie blatantly and to change their testimony to destroy an effective defence argument.  Ironically, Aitken is forced to resort to a technique that Surratt abhors: to condemn the son by proving his complicity in order to save the mother. A further irony is that the son does not share his mother’s sentiments. Despite the fact that John Surratt becomes aware of the verdict of his mother’s guilt, he fails to come out of hiding to save her, an option which the Attorney-General had postulated as a possibility to spare her the gallows.
Aitken, in despair, tells the court, ‘With 600,000 killed in this war, you don’t need to frighten us any more.” Patently, the politicians did not agree with him. They stuck ruthlessly to the argument that ‘She built the nest and hatched this plot.’
As a result of this trial, America adopted the policy of trial by a jury of peers for civilians, even during war. To achieve such massive change in state policy there are invariably casualties: Frederick Aitken and Mary Surratt certainly were two such cases. As Mary steps into the sunlight after weeks in a gloomy cell, a black umbrella blots out the glaring sun: this is a telling symbol. It may be true, as Aitken discovers, that “In times of war, the Law falls silent,” but Aitken’s angry warning to the military jury is equally true: if such injustice comes to pass then “None of you are safe.” This message is universal, across time and place.

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