An Angry Nation on Film
Director: Robert Redford
Writer: James D. Solomon, Gergory Berstein
Stars: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Danny Huston
RANT: Spending Easter in the midwest with my family. My big sister and her family have come in from California for the week, so I get to spend time with them as well. A big win for my heart, but a loss for seeing movies this weekend. Luckily, only Water for Elephants opened, which one newspaper claimed to be "The Lamest Show on Earth". I will return with more reviews next week.
SYNOPSIS: Union Captain turned lawyer, Frederick Aiken, is charged with the military court defense of the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination.
Robert Redford returns to the director's chair with his historical account of the military trial of Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the Lincoln kidnapping, turned assassination, was planned by John Wilkes Booth and his confederate sympathizers.
James McAvoy stars as Union Captain Frederick Aiken who, after returning from the war between the states, goes into the practice of law under Senator of Maryland Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Johnson is tasked with defending Mary Surrat (Robin Wright), the owner of a boarding house where her son, John Wilkes Booth and other southern and confederate sympathizers planned the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Dealing with divided loyalties in front of the military tribunal while defending the accused co-conspirator Mary Surratt, Johnson puts Aiken on her defense to give her a chance at a fair trial.
The history of the film is as poignant as that of Scott's Black Hawk Down or Milk. Mary Surratt is an admitted southern sympathizer needing to support herself and her family after the death of her husband on trial for her accused part in the assassination of the nation's President. Aiken is a union soldier and lawyer, only defending Surratt because he has to, not because he believes in her. Regardless of his beliefs, Aiken does defend her to the chagrin of his Union soldier compatriots and his girlfriend, as well as the peril of his career.
Redford shoots the film in a smokey haze. The military courtroom is barely more than a barracks at a fort, the dust and haze filtering and reflecting in the low light coming from the windows. Other scenes are shot just as softly, as if the camera lens was covered with Civil War era gauze. The bandages that cover the wound of a dead president and a divided nation seem to seep into every frame. Will Mary Surratt be the first woman to hang for her alleged part in the plot? Will a union military tribunal result in a fair verdict, in spite of a enraged public? Will Secretary of War Edwin Stanton allow any verdict to dissuade him from rendering angry and biased judgement?
The acting is stellar. McAvoy is torn between duty to the law, to justice, and to a mourning nation. Wilkinson is calculated for his career, but concerned for what possible justice can come out of this trial. Danny Huston as the prosecutor booms every witness and has all of the angles covered. And finally Robin Wright, as Mary Surratt, is a woman devout to her beliefs in God, her beliefs in the Confederacy, and the belief in her innocence.
A moving portrait of the lengths that one will go to to protect the greater good, The Conspirator is classic Robert Redford direction - thoughtful and deep. But The Conspirator is more Lions for Lambs than The Horse Whisperer or Quiz Show. You can definitely enjoy this film at home, whether you are blue or grey.