In 2011, The Conspirator a star-studded film directed by Robert Redford was released to coincide with commemorations around the life and death of Abraham Lincoln. Would this drama do justice to the history and the genre, or would it prove to miss the mark?
1865 saw a great act of tragedy strike at the heart of a very fragile Union following the end of the Civil War in America. The President, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the aftermath the search is not just for the murderer as it appears a conspiracy is at the heart of the act and so the conspirators must be brought to justice. Among those arrested to be tried is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman in the group of conspriators whose role in the conspiracy is not as straightforward as the others.
It is this questionable position that leads Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to take the case and then commission his protege Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to defend on behalf of the accused. This causes problems for Aiken who served in the Northern troops and so is already among those who seek to see Surratt as well as the others suffer for their crime. Yet his mentor presses it upon him to defend the woman or at least prove conclusively that she was indeed a part of the plot. As he explores the case further, Aiken begins to reluctantly acknowledge there are a lot of flaws in the process of the system to try Surratt.
Aiken faces significant obstacles as he faces the American government itself which is looking to see that the trial goes through as swiftly as possible with guilty verdicts rendered. This is highlighted by the fact that the trial is taking place as a millitary one rather than among a jury of the defendant’s peers. The odds are stacked further against Aiken’s cause as Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) Secretary for War is especially keen to see the matter go through with no hassles and the prosecuting attorney Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) knows the tricks and tactics to stymie Aiken.
As well as those, Aiken also risks his closest relationships as his friends and beloved Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) question his commitment to what looks like a thankless task. Relations with his defendant and her family are also tough to break because of key family ties that stop certain vital information to be divulged. As time runs out for Aiken it appears there is no way he can possibly emerge from this trial without losing a lot.
This film has the elements for a compelling drama. The casting is excellent. McAvoy as Aiken is the central character driving the film and he is a quality actor and proves this with his performance capturing the tormented struggles his character goes through in weighing up what matters more the key values of the constitution or the effect the trial could have on the country and more importantly on the relationships that matter most to him. Huston deserves credit as well for putting in a subtle performance as the prosecuting attorney. Kline’s acting chops come to the fore as well in not overacting his part as Stanton one who is willing to go to any length to protect the unity of the Union. Credit also to Robin Wright’s portrayal of Surratt, it shows the real heart of the piece in helping appreciate that people’s values do not necessarily demonise them even if it puts them in the spotlight. Finally kudos to Tom Wilkinson who should by now have a first name And for the amount of roles he performs that sees him cast as the … And Tom Wilkinson role. He brings his class as an actor to the table and it raises the performances of those with whom he works.
Performances are one thing, but the story and its telling also have to be up to scratch. In that aspect there are a number of good taut scenes to carry us through the film. These touch critical emotional nerves whilst also opening up the underlying values behind the case to get viewers engaging with those matters. These are not just political considerations but personal/family ones as well, for example if your son was wanted and likely to be hung for his part in a conspiracy would you give him up to save your life? Worse still, what if you’re the daughter caught in the middle of saving her mother or her brother?
There are times when the film drops the pace significantly and in the context of the film as a whole some scenes seem completely unnecessary. This does not hugely detract from a thoroughly enjoyable drama that isn’t just a point for Americans to use to remember their history, but for others to view and grapple with issues that are just as pertinent now as they were then.
(Read this as a recommended film review on this film as well.)