On April 14th, 1865, with the Civil War at its end, President Abraham Lincoln took his wife to the theatre. There, assassin John Wilkes Booth shot him in cold blood, the culminating act of what was meant to be a three pronged attack by he and his associates, decapitating the leadership of the Union in one fell swoop. What followed in the days afterward included a manhunt for the assassin and his confederates, mass arrests, and an appetite for vengeance in the North that would have long lasting consequences. The story has been told in many accounts by historians, including a recent update by James Swanson called Manhunt. It has also found its way into novels, and to both the small and big screen. In recent years, the cable movie The Day Lincoln Was Shot depicted the assassination and its fallout.
In the second of my what was I thinking when I missed this in the theatre reviews, I'm turning my attention today to The Conspirator, which made a quiet debut last year in theatres, and has moved to the home video market. The film, by director Robert Redford, tells an often overlooked part of the Lincoln assassination: the trial of the other accused in the conspiracy, particularly the story of the only woman to be tried in the case.
The movie opens two years earlier, introducing us to a young Union officer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), wounded on the field of battle. Then it proceeds to the conclusion of the war, with celebration in Washington. With the surrender of Lee and the certaintly that other Confederate forces in the field would soon follow, the Civil War is at an end, and after years of bloodshed and calamity, it seems that finally, a page has been turned.
Looking back at it, we all know better. Booth, the famed actor and sometimes Confederate operative, cannot accept the turn of events, and he gets an unexpected opportunity when he learns of the President's theatre plans. He launches a spur of the moment operation, assassinating Lincoln, while sending one of his men after the Vice President and two more to kill the Secretary of State.
The assassination sequence at the theatre is familiar to most people, and Redford gives it the gravity it requires. He does the same with the other two aspects of the conspiracy, where we see the failed attack against Secretary Seward and the failure to attack the Vice President. Aiken, in Washington, witnesses the removal of the President from the theatre to the home across the street where he died a few hours later. It's a moment that impresses upon the young lawyer. From there, of course, Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline) takes control, launching a manhunt, doing whatever it takes to root out the conspirators, and the manhunt ends with the death of Booth.
Of course, the film's not about Booth, and it's not about Lincoln. Their ghosts do hover over the rest of the film, but the story is about Aiken himself, drawn into defending one of the accused in the conspiracy trial, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). His mentor, a Senator named Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), asks him to take the case. He's a Southerner who stayed loyal, and he believes that Mary needs a Yankee attorney. Aiken is reluctant, understandably. He believes Mary is guilty, and she's not exactly helpful in her own defense. Her boarding house was a meeting place for Booth and his gang, even before the assassination plot. Her son John was one of Booths' closest confederates, and while he had no part in the assassination, the government is still looking for him.
Aiken finds himself drawn into the case. He prepares a defense, finding inconsistencies in the case, meeting Marys' daughter Anna, who's ostracized and isolated because of her family. He's bothered that a civilian is being tried before a military tribunal, rather then by the civilian courts. He believes that basic constitutional rights are being trampled. And he comes to see that the lead prosecutor, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) is actively stacking the deck against him and his client, interfering with witnesses. He pleads with Mary to reveal where her son is, something that as a mother she cannot do. His personal life and reputation suffer because of the case. And he increasingly wonders about her guilt, or degree of guilt, or innocence, while pleading with the tribunal not to let themselves give in to revenge.
The film is, at its heart, a courtroom drama. It brings up troubling questions that remain relevant today, about justice versus revenge and the rights of everyone to a fair trial. The tribunal wasn't about justice. It was all about revenge. Redford directs from a script by James Solomon, based on years of research, and he brings gravity and weight to the film, which has a deliberate, methodical tone to it, and an enormous amount of attention to detail. From my own knowledge of the story, I didn't seen any liberties taken with history.
Painstaking efforts for accuracy was made during production, and it worked. From the architecture of buildings and sets to the small details of costuming, props, and even gas lighting, the film feels very much like it's drawn out of the mid-nineteenth century.
The casting of the roles is well done. Kevin Kline as Stanton is an interesting choice; you have to look twice at him to recognize him, though the voice can't be mistaken. There are things he says that would seem familiar coming from Dick Cheney, including being willing to ignore the rights under the constitution if it means saving the country. Still, as much as Stanton might be seen as an antagonist, his actions are still understandable. In those hours and days after the assassination, the magnitude of the shock on the country was something that wasn't felt again until the Second World War. Stanton and Lincoln had been friends, and the War Secretary was convinced the conspiracy was far larger then it was. Stanton wasn't right, but he wasn't quite wrong either. Kline gives the character a tremendous presence and a decisiveness at a point in time where, in effect, Stanton was the entire federal government.
Tom Wilkinson is one of my favourite actors. He brings a lot to each role. In this, he brings tenacity, a certain scrappiness and cynicism, and depth to his role. And as Holt, Danny Huston comes across as overbearing, but it's entirely appropriate for the role. He should feel like a formidable opponent, and Huston has that kind of presence.
It's wise of Redford to have cast general unknowns as Lincoln and Booth. Both actors do look the part (particularly Toby Kebbell, who's got Booth's look and personality perfectly), but appear briefly at the beginning and in flashback. Bigger names would have distracted.
The two leads are well cast. Robin Wright gives her role as Mary Surratt a distinct dignity. She holds back from Aiken, evading his questions, leaving the audience to wonder about her guilt, to come to their own conclusions. Robin does look dressed down, so to speak, but gives Mary a strength and sympathy that we can connect to, regardless of our opinion on the Confederate cause. Fundamentally, she wants to protect her child. We can understand that. And the bond that develops between she and Aiken is one of mother and son, so that as the film progresses, Aiken sees her in an entirely different light.
James McAvoy is the driving force of the movie, the idealistic attorney who's seen war, who believes in the law and in justice. He pleads to the better angels of our nature, to quote the President, but it's a plea that goes unheard. He makes the effort to exonerate his client, fights for her, and is there with her through to the end. McAvoy, who's quickly building an impressive resume of films, gives Aiken an earnest, sincere depth.
Redford the director has become one of the great craftsmen of film. He has a fine talent for telling a story, for making the best use of his cast and crew, and he uses this film to shed light on an often overlooked aspect of that time, with questions that still haunts us to this day. The Conspirator is a powerful, compelling, and dramatic film that you should see.