(No longer in theaters)
Apr 15, 2011
Robert Redford’s The Conspirator centers on the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran a boardinghouse frequented by the men who plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln, among them John Wilkes Booth and her own son. Arrested along with many others after the assassination, she is judged by a military tribunal that has no inclination, whatever the evidence, to let anyone off—incensing her hitherto reluctant lawyer, Aiken (the excellent James McAvoy). It is Aiken who articulates the message: that the Constitution must—pace the vengeful Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline)—apply to all, guilty or innocent, in peace or in peril.
It would be easy to dismiss The Conspirator as a dramatized civil-liberties lecture with obvious implications re: Guantánamo. But if the decade since 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s that we haven’t been very well taught. Redford does a fine, economical job re-creating the horror of the assassination, the dying president barely glimpsed but the bowls of blood carried from his deathbed all too vivid. And because Wright’s Surratt is so starkly private, even withholding, her fate becomes part of a larger tragedy.
The screenwriter, James Solomon, does the poor job only a liberal could at making the case for a Cheneyesque “dark side,” and he isn’t helped by Kline’s wooden acting. Too bad. The Conspirator is eloquent enough to let the other side have its say.