Funny how the Constitution tends to lose some of its power and meaning whenever the U.S. comes under attack. Inalienable rights are cast aside, replaced by a totalitarian mindset in which our leaders govern not by law, but fear.
Funny how the Constitution tends to lose some of its power and meaning whenever the U.S. comes under attack. Inalienable rights are cast aside, replaced by a totalitarian mindset in which our leaders govern not by law, but fear. It happened after Pearl Harbor with the internment of Japanese innocents, and after 9/11, when Muslims became fair game for racial profiling.
The rest of us are paying, too, sacrificing our last bits of privacy to a Big Brother government that dutifully keeps tabs on every breath we take, every move we make. Heck, we can’t even go to the airport without being felt up, X-rayed and inspected by some grubby handed rep from TSA.
Well, Robert Redford, for one, has had enough. He’s particularly disturbed by our treatment of the Gitmo inmates, who remain locked up despite never being formally charged or granted the same rights our nation bestows on the likes of Charlie Manson and Ted Bundy.
Redford touched lightly on the subject in “Lions for Lambs,” his last bit of didactic filmmaking, but it blossoms into a full-scale diatribe in “The Conspirator,” a fact-based tale about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination.
The Oscar-winning director takes no prisoners in making his left-leaning political statements about the Bush and Obama administrations under the guise of a post-Civil War legal thriller in which a Redford surrogate (James McAvoy) takes up the cause of a 42-year-old Catholic woman accused of being party to the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, his vice president, Andrew Johnson, and his secretary of state, Frederick Steward, in one treasonous night.
The woman’s name, for you non-history buffs, was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Washington, D.C., resident who kept her family fed by operating the boarding house where the assassination plan was hatched, hammered out and honed. But was she guilty? Redford seems to think not, painting her as a martyr, not to a lost cause, but to a cowardly son who’d rather see his mother die for his crimes than turn himself in.
Wright is perfect as Surratt, a woman with great pride and dignity, even if she may, or may not, have abetted known terrorists. You feel for her and her plight, but you also empathize with her need to protect her guilty son, John (Johnny Simmons), who was assigned the task of leading his co-conspirators to safety after their three-pronged attack on Washington the night of April 14, 1865.
You also admire Surratt’s sole defender, McAvoy’s Frederick Aiken, a Yankee war hero turned attorney, who takes up Surratt’s case at the request of the distinguished senator from Maryland, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). McAvoy is British by birth, but he’s all American as Aiken. Like Redford in “All the President’s Men,” McAvoy cuts to the heart of what it means to seek out the truth in a wrangled political climate in which the powers that be want the suspects to hang at any cost, including a defendant’s Constitutional rights.
Redford repeatedly reminds us that Mary Surratt was sent up before a highly prejudiced military tribunal instead of a jury of her peers, as prescribed in the Bill of Rights. The way she is railroaded through the system and denied every chance to prove her innocence would be disturbing if Redford wasn’t so heavy-handed in his preaching about how what was happening then is happening again now.
Unfortunately, Redford and first-time screenwriter James Solomon rarely find any drama or moral complexity in their tale, which thrives more on the evocative cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel (“The Usual Suspects”) than on the mannered acting and stilted dialogue that largely unfolds in reams of exposition and puffed-up declarations. People don’t so much talk to each other as they speak at each other. And when the actors say the words, they say them with all the conviction of a third-grader in a school play.
Yet, the film, and the story, remains a fascinating primer on the post-war paranoia infiltrating our nation’s capital, not to mention the deplorable treatment of prisoners who were presumed guilty, even if the evidence suggests they were not.
The film’s best moments unfurl inside the courtroom. And that’s due in no small favor to another electrifying performance by Danny Huston as the government’s unbending, and unerring, chief prosecutor. He finds a worthy opponent in McAvoy’s Frederick, a man whose passion for the truth is second only to Redford’s.
Still, at nearly two hours, “The Conspirator” is largely a bore. Scenes drag on too long, the dialogue is better suited to the History Channel, and the actors tend to rely far too much on big bustles, fake beards and towering hats in fleshing out their blasé characters. That’s especially true of the supporting players, including Alexis Bledel as Frederick’s snooty fiancée, Kevin Kline as warmongering Secretary of Defense Edwin Stanton, Evan Rachel Wood as Surratt’s loyal daughter, and Colm Meany as the head of the tribunal.
They’re all forgettable. But what happened to Mary Surratt should not be disremembered. It left a black mark on history that time should never be allowed to erase.
THE CONSPIRATOR (PG-13 for some violent content.) Cast includes James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline. Directed by Robert Redford. 2.5 stars out of 4.