TIFF10 REVIEW: The Conspirator [2010]

“Why did I fight for the Union if my rights aren’t assured?”

The aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination hasn’t really been the subject of many films that I know of. Of course there is the whole Steven Spielberg Lincoln project that has been pushed back every year since its announcement, a starting date nowhere near close at hand, but while watching a depiction of his life should be interesting, the subject of his death is more so. Here was the first murder of a President, an event no one thought remotely possible, no matter what state the country was in. Well, as the Toronto International Film Festival debut of Robert Redford’s new work The Conspirator showed, it was a carefully hatched plan evolving from abduction to multiple homicides. John Wilkes Booth’s southern ties led him to recruit a band of sympathizers for payback towards the North on their Civil War victory. Redford’s mission isn’t to show us the details of that conspiracy or the men involved, however, his story tells of America’s penchant for pushing through an agenda and appeasing the people’s desire for retribution rather than upholding the Constitutional rights of its citizens for a fair trial and innocent before proven guilty status.

Booth (Toby Kebbell) and his accomplices would meet at a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) due to his friendship with her son John (Johnny Simmons). Assumed to have been aware of everything going on behind the closed doors of her establishment, the army takes her into custody along with the men who survived the ‘dead or alive’ manhunt. With John in hiding and the army, led by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline in a very successful serious role), desiring a swift ruling to show the American people the government remains strong, a military tribunal of Union generals are culled together for a kangaroo court jury, the verdict chosen before the trial even began. With Booth dead and Mary unwilling to give up her son to be tried in her place, the army has little choice but to hold the mother accountable for the boy’s transgressions. The country is still divided and anyone who fought for the North has a bloodlust to sees these southern traitors hanged, Mary included. Everyone, that is, except Maryland Congressman Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a man who served as Attorney General under Zachary Taylor and one loyal to the Union. His words, “She’s entitled to a defense, so I shall defend her,” speaking the truth when no one wanted to listen.

Busy with his own duties, and perhaps a bit worried about defending an enemy of the state himself, he enlists newly reinstated attorney Frederick Aiken. A heroic Captain for the Union, wounded on the battlefield with his men (Justin Long and James Badge Dale serving as his closest friends during and after the fighting), James McAvoy’s Aiken is dumbfounded at the prospect of being Surratt’s counsel. In his eyes, whether she knew what was happening in her house or not, she should have. But, after spending time in the courthouse amidst the military jury, Colm Meaney’s army man David Hunter serving as judge, and Prosecutor Joseph Holt’s (Danny Huston) unflinching capacity to buy witnesses and tamper with evidence, the case becomes more than just proving Mary’s innocence. This trial very quickly turns into one where the very Constitution is put on the stand. Aiken takes it upon himself to hold his ground against his idol Stanton for the rights he believes our Founding Fathers set in place. No matter how many steadfast jabs he gives, though, the military finds a way to work around the Bill of Rights, making it so Surratt’s future hinges on her son taking her place at the gallows.

Redford has done a very impressive job at getting the aesthetic correct for the 1860s, my cousin in Savannah actually telling me he saw some of the sets while attending college, the usual paved streets covered with mulch. And, as Redford has obtained throughout his directorial career, the performances are all wonderful. Seeing this impressive cast in the period garb, speaking with a distinct old English flair, and reveling in the aristocratic galas held each night in celebration of the war’s end, goes a long way towards being able to sit through the court scenes and political sparring sessions about what is best for the public rather than for one person about to be unjustly put to death. Neither Aiken nor Surratt wants the verdict to be ‘not guilty’ without merit; they just want a fair trial. Unfortunately, both know the prospect is impossible and eventually we are able to see the anguish and stress wreaking havoc on their bodies. Wright’s mother, unwilling to condemn her son, puts on a face of strength when you know her soul has been defeated, and McAvoy soon puts his life and girlfriend on hold, in knowledge of his dwindling reputation, to uphold the law he so bravely fought to keep sacred.

The best moments in The Conspirator come when the conflict is highest. Stephen Root’s John Lloyd and Jonathan Groff’s Louis Weichmann are two witnesses cajoled into bending the truth for the ‘good’ of the nation and their testimonies opposite McAvoy’s Aiken are quite enjoyable, especially the look of knowing by Meaney and Huston, ignoring the truth as they get closer to the end of this atrocity of justice. I have to believe the script, by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, does its best to stay close to the truth while also embedding a noticeable capacity for emotional resonance on behalf of Surratt. We as an audience begin to respect this woman as she stands by her family despite knowing full well she had nothing to do with Lincoln’s death. It is the same bond Aiken cultivates with the woman, eventually growing from regret in his participation with the case to engrossing himself in it, looking to find any way of securing her a fair and impartial trial—the right of which does change to include times of war afterward. I believe a lot can be learned from this event, both by Democrats and Republicans, while we watch our Constitution be constantly ignored by our current governmental regimes.

The Conspirator 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] A scene from The American Film Company’s The Conspirator (2010)
[2] James McAvoy stars as Frederick Aiken in The American Film Company’s The Conspirator (2010)
[3] Toby Kebbell stars as John Wilkes Booth in The American Film Company’s The Conspirator (2010)

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