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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "The Conspirator"

For those who may bee disinclined to see another Robert Redford-directed film because of the negative effect his previous film, "Lions for Lambs," had on them, let me assure you: this is not one of "those." Redford is back to his well-scripted dramatization mode after an unfortunate experiment with fatiguing polemic masquerading as a commercial product. That negative, at least, is one of my arguments that this is much more worth seeing.

Few among us go to a film for its historical benefit, which this affords us. But there are plent of us who would see a film for a brilliant cast. Happily for Redford, there's probably not an actor here or abroad who wouldn't agree to work on one of his projects. In this one, the actor/director/Sundance proprietor takes advantage of his magnetic name among his peers and shows a flawless taste in casting, delivering a historical drama with excellent production values.

In the halls of infamy, the name John Wilkes Booth takes a prominent position for having fired the shot that killed our most endeared president, Abraham Lincoln, while he was watching a play shortly after the Confederacy folded to the Union troops in America's Civil War. It was an act that couldn't have been perpetrated by one man alone, as the horrified political, military and security figures were quick to assume. Little time was wasted on that issue. In short order, Booth's hideout--a boarding house--gave up eight accused conspirators: seven men and one woman.

Missing was the boarding house owner's son, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons) who, it turns out, initially invited Booth (Toby Kebbell) to use his mother's place as the secret staging area for the assassination plot--Confederate renegades all.

Their trial hinges on two matters. Was John's mother Mary (Robin Wright) complicit in the plot; and will John Surratt be found before Mary is used in his stead as the target of revenge to satisfy a nation demanding blood? The issue of true justice and facts play a minor role in the political demands involved.

At this time, a young and inexperienced lawyer and war hero, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) becomes the sacrificial defense attorney assigned by Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the ex-Attorney General of the United States under President Zachary Taylor and current senator from Maryland, to plead her case before a military tribunal. (Actually, it was Reverdy Johnson who was Surratt's defense attorney. Aiken is a fictitious character created, presumably, to provide the more commercially attractive note of youth in the central role.)

Doubtful of her innocence and reluctant to fill a role that's as repugnant to him as to any other citizen of the Union at this time, Aiken confronts the legal issues and his conscience to provide the accused woman what the constitution requires: a legal defense.

As the tribunal proceeds in an atmosphere of deliberate animosity and foregone conclusions against his client, Aiken realizes that the strictly legal issue that should free her is that the prosecution, in the person of Joseph Holt (assertive Danny Huston), can't prove that the boarding lady was a knowing member of Booth's ring of plotters any more than Aiken can prove that she wasn't.

On the personal side, Aiken's increasingly determined defense confounds everyone who looks upon the case through the prism of patiotism. His insistence on removing emotional factors in the courtroom confuses his friends, threatens his future, and tests the support of his fiance.

It would be difficult to imagine a better purveyor of the Mary Surratt character than Wright. From the architecture of a face that we can believe has never felt the brush of makeup or any other artifice, to her dignified bearing, she represents to us a woman of fierce righteousness and conviction--all the more to convey the doubt of her guilt when she denies it.

McAvoy, without a trace of his British speech patterns, once again gives us the benefit of his consummate artistry. He must hold his own in this company of peers, and he does it very well, indeed.

Technically, the conveyance of 1865 Washington, DC in visual terms is the effective work of Director of Photography, Newton Thomas Sigel ("Valkyrie," "Superman Returns"). An abundance of smoke to capture rays of sun splashing around the interiors and an almost errant quality to the illumination of the actors lends a gutty realism to the historical period and the emotional turmoil of the time.

Add a notch on Redford's belt of politically inspired movies. Widening our grasp of the events during a tragic event that we thought we learned all about in high school history class is a fine contribution to the general knowledge of that dreaded time. It reveals something so dark in human nature that the very democracy we so love can be instantly subjugated to political needs. Despite the weight that it carries, a comparison to a TV production or, at best, an HBO special, is hard to avoid--despite a cast that says feature film.

The scenario as captured by writers James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein bring to our attention that there was, in 1865, a line above which an average citizen couldn't cross or ever penetrate. It's where the administration elite and their financial contributors live in comfort and, when needed, above the law. It's meant to arouse our anger. It does. If you think seriously about it. And, if you do that, you start thinking about political realities of 2011.

As history lessons go, let me add this addendum, which is not without its irony. President Andrew Johnson who, in the film, secures his presidency by deciding Mary Surratt's conviction and penalty, goes on three years later to become the only president who was impeached... until the senate added Bill Clinton's name to that list of infamy in our own time. Like Clinton after him, Johnson survived the Senate's action, but in his case, by a much closer margin: only one vote. Of course, by that time it had nothing to do with the Surratt case. It had more to do with Johnson's political rivals' disgust with his favors to the Confederate states and his vetoes of their civil rights bills. Lincoln may have made Johnson his vice president in order to balance the ticket but, by not being omniscient about his own fate, he did the union no favors. Politics, politics. And our destiny in the balance.

The film was released in 2011, one day after the calendar date of Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Robin Wright and James McAvoy
The accused and the defense attorney.
Pondering her fate, which is about more than truth and justice.

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