The war is won. Lee surrendered to Grant. Union soldiers attending a ball — more on them later — would love to shake hands with the secretary of war Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), but he is a very busy man; so much work remains. He’d rather be working tonight, but the president is otherwise occupied — he’ll be attending the theater with Mrs. Lincoln.
You’ve heard all of this before, including Lincoln’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. But The Conspirator tells a lesser known story.
In the aftermath of the assassination, one of the conspirators is identified as John Surratt. But he is in hiding, and — as the movie tells it — the prosecutors and the public are thirsty for blood. So John’s mother Mary Surrat (Robin Wright) is accused of conspiring to murder the president. Her hands aren’t entirely clean — she owned the boarding house where her son John, Booth, and others planned the assassination, and she was sympathetic to the Confederacy. But she seems to have been chosen as a target — again, as the movie tells it — because her son cannot be found.
The Lincoln Lawyer
The need for revenge is understandable — the Confederate loyalists are trying to steal victory from the Union by assassinating Mr. Lincoln. The North, weary and insecure from the painful victory, wants to ensure the war stays won.
It is in this climate that Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is assigned degrading task of defending Mary Surratt in court. Most of his friends and bosses would prefer he not put up a strong defense and just let her hang.
But Aiken — and writer James D. Solomon and director Robert Redford — see Mary’s story as a cautionary tale about mob justice. Just because she is accused of the worst imaginable crime, that is no reason to ignore due process. If the movie were made 5 years ago, when the country was debating whether accused terrorists ought to be treated differently from people accused of other crimes, it might have felt more timely. It’s not that we’ve answered that question; but we seem to have stopped talking about it.
It’s 5:00 Somewhere
The Conspirator, to me, looks like a made-for-TV movie. Establishing shots have a diffuse glow that is probably supposed to evoke bygone days. It always seems to be early morning or late afternoon, with strong horizontal light suffusing every chamber, courtroom, and prison cell. These are great-looking shots that will go well on cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s ( Valkyrie, Leatherheads) reel. But the effect on me was to remind me of Hallmark-style TV specials where melodramatic lighting masks mediocre writing, short production timelines and small budgets.
I think I would have related to the story better if the photography were more realistic. The HBO miniseries on John Adams (another man who defended politically unpopular clients) strikes me as a good way to approach history: Adams wears a powdered wig at work, but then comes home, takes it off, and complains to his wife about his day. It’s approachable and human-sized, demythologizing the people whose notoriety has elevated them out of our immediate understanding. Redford’s movie does the opposite: it makes the past an idealized, untouchable landscape unconnected with life in the 21st century.
I think the cinematography had the unintended effect of making the film feel heavyhanded, too (or maybe the film really is heavyhanded). Modern audiences are so obviously pushed to recognize the injustice of Mary Surratt’s trial, that you begin to feel the hand that’s doing the pushing.
The Conspirator is the first film from The American Film Company, which was founded by Billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of Ameritrade. It looks like he hopes to produce more films about American history, and more power to him. Next time, though, I hope they hire HBO’s John Adams team instead of Redford, Solomon, and Sigel.