Saturday, April 16, 2011

'The Conspirator' Asks Some Important Questions

Robert Redford's "The Conspirator" is a laudable effort to reconstruct a misunderstood historic moment and inject a lesson in just how far out of whack our Democracy can get in times of national panic and anger.

"The Conspirator" is Mary Surratt, the woman hanged for conspiring in the murder of Abraham Lincoln. In this telling, Surratt's guilt or innocence is not the point. The fact that she is railroaded by a zealous Secretary of War and a compliant military tribunal brings the events into the 21st century and gives Redford's story relevance and punch.

Surratt, ably played by Robin Wright (in a part that should have gone to Kathy Bates), owns a boarding house where the plot to kill Lincoln, Secretary of State Sewell and Vice President Johnson was constructed. Her son, John, is alleged to have had a part in the plot, but he disappeared for many months after the killing and was eventually exonerated. Mary Surratt was rounded up with a large number of suspects (including Dr. Mudd, who treated killer John Wilkes Booth without knowing of the crime) and charged with a capital crime.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, menacingly played by Kevin Klein, wants the conspirators tried, convicted and hung in short order, in an effort to restore order. He is much less concerned about Constitutional protections than of immediate order. And there's the rub.

Initially, a Maryland Senator, Lincoln pallbearer and former cabinet member, played by scene-stealing Tom Wilkinson, is assigned to the case and he has the noblest of goals, but understands that his Southern accent and Maryland roots make him suspect to the ardent Unionists. He selects young Union Captain Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy, to replace him. McAvoy is reluctant at first, but warms to the impossible task and offends all his society friends, loses his girlfriend and faces crisis after crisis, both personal and professional in the course of the trial and its aftermath. The real Aiken eventually became the first editor of the Washington Post after leaving the practice of law.

The beautifully shot movie is a cuationary tale, told in a manner that leaves you short of judging Surratt's guilt or innocence and approaching the far greater question of whether our laws are meant to protect the individual or not. It's a good question. Especially these days.

The movie is at Valley View Cienma in Roanoke. It's worth your time.

1 comment:

  1. I had a professor in college who used to say, "Democracy is rule by mob. That's why the US is a Republic, rule by law." What's scary about this story is, how thin the line is that protects one from the other.