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The Conspirator

April 16, 2011
The Conspirator

The trailer for The Conspirator is packed with civil libertarian red meat: “There is no limit to how far the prosecution is willing to go”; “The military trial of civilians is an atrocity”; “Our founding fathers drafted a constitution precisely for times like this”. And these are true: there does seem to be no limit to how far this prosecution is willing to go; the military trial of civilians is, indeed, an atrocity; and our founding fathers did draft a constitution precisely for times like these. We’ve heard these sentiments over and over in recent years applied to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, among others, and they do need to be repeated over and over and over again, especially to those who seem to believe that the Constitution’s limitations on government power only extend as far as the powers to limit corporate power. But if these phrases get you fired up and ready to go to the theater, you already know all that The Conspirator has to teach you.

In the twilight of the civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater, while his confederates simultaneously attempted assassinations of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, in an attempt to disrupt enough of the Union government for the rebels to mount a comeback. One of Booth’s closest allies was John Surratt, at whose mother’s boarding house the conspirators had sometimes met to make their plans. Surratt fled in the aftermath of the assassination; the only one to escape.

The investigation was headed up by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), whose agents took what alleged conspirators they could find into military custody, including Surratt’s mother, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Stanton appointed a military tribunal presided over by Major General David Hunter (Colm Meaney), and appointed Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) as the prosecuting attorney.

Mary Surratt, for her part, retained the legal services of Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who passed most of the day-to-day duties on to his young associates, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) and John Clampitt (not appearing in this film), on the reasoning that his own loyalties to the union were already in question, and that Aiken and Clampitt’s presence in his place would be less prejudicial.

Clampitt’s omission is only the start of a concerted effort to streamline and shoehorn the historical narrative into the civil libertarian one that writer James Solomon director/producer Robert Redford want to show. For instance, Johnson was not necessarily the idealistic crusader outside the courtroom, having previously represented the respondent Sanford before the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott case. More generally, there is in fact little real controversy over the guilt of Mary Surratt. While this does not change the injustice of her military tribunal, it was far easier for Solomon and Redford to make their point by significantly weakening the prosecution’s case, not to mention by throwing in at least one historically unsupported twist of the knife on Stanton’s part to make him a better villain.

Outside the (amended) historical events, the rest of the action, the dialogue, and even the characters are taken straight from the can. There are some of Aiken’s friends and a love interest who pull away from him to show how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the Good of Justice. McAvoy has plenty of indignation to throw around. If Kline had had a mustache and not just a beard, it would have been all he could do to keep from twirling it. Everyone in sight is more idea than real character, and it’s hard to care about any of them beyond the extent of the all-important message.

Which civil libertarian message, again, is nothing really new. If it’s a moving sentiment to you then you’ve already internalized the movie. If it’s not, then there’s not much else in here to hold your attention while the message tries to sink in.

Worth It: not really, though it might be a great way to kill a couple days in a high school U.S. History class.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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