Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Conspirator

Law And Order: Civil War

Going Rate: Worth full price.
Starring: Robin Wright Penn, James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Alexis Bledel
Rated: PG-13 (misleading -- should be fine for mature children under that age)
Red Flags: One sequence of a Civil War battle aftermath, depiction of the assassination of President Lincoln, mild language

Mary Surratt hanged for her role in the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the attempted assassination of Vice President Andrew Johnson, and the botched hit on Secretary of State William Seward. She owned the boarding house where the plotters met, and she was an unrepentant supporter of the Confederacy. Beyond that, was she guilty of a crime or just guilty by association? That's the central question of The Conspirator, a beautifully-filmed historical procedural directed by Robert Redford which makes a strong case for the rights of the accused and the presumption of innocence against a backdrop of fear and revenge.

As the film opens, the Confederate States of America is on borrowed time, fighting only to prolong its inevitable defeat. Despite President Lincoln's call for a fractured nation to heal, the lost Southern dream dies hard. A cabal forms to take out the nation's beloved president and those standing in the way of Confederate victory. As popular history tells us, President Lincoln died from the bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre the night of April 14, 1865 during a performance of Our American Cousin. The Conspirator begins where my public-school history book left off.

The conspirators are tried by a military tribunal, due to Washington D.C. being under martial law at the time of the assassination. The tribunal system weighs heavily against the defendants, requiring only a majority -- not a unanimous -- verdict for conviction, among other things. Worse, the military jury is stacked with Union commanders. Surratt (Wright) hires Senator Reverendy Johnson (Wilkinson) to defend her, but Johnson backs out when he senses it will be impossible for his client to get a fair trial.

Johnson's second chair, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) picks up the case. Even though he is a veteran of the Union Army, he believes that in the pursuit of justice there is no North or South. Aiken is not convinced of Surratt's innocence, but he is also not confident she is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. His efforts to mount a competent defense lead him back to Surratt's boarding house, where he begins to unravel holes in the government's case with the reluctant help of Surratt's daughter Anna (Wood).

Aiken also gets insight from Surratt herself, ill and refusing to eat in a stone-cold military cell. The movie doesn't portray her as a saintly fall-girl but a principled, GOD-fearing Confederate loyalist who draws the line at murder. She is not allowed to testify in her own defense, however, so Aiken's hope of acquitting her demands she made a heartbreaking choice.

I admired McAvoy's charisma as Aiken and his unwavering devotion to Constitutional principles where others are willing to suspend them. His adversaries argue the nation is in too great a state of shock and sadness to give the accused conspirators protections under the civilian justice system. Somebody's gotta go to prison, goshdarnit, and they gotta go quickly. More than a few of you will draw comparisons to today's War on Terror.

The Conspirator almost plays like a historical episode of Law And Order without the "cha-chunk" sound over the black and white title cards. It's richly costumed and set with beards, belles, and a ball scene. The dusty arsenal where the trial takes place is beautifully lit and filmed. It is compelling history, well written and accurately told, even if some facts seem, well, un-American.

The Conspirator is the first release from The American Film Company, which aims to produce compelling and yet accurate historical dramas. I'm delighted to see they're developing a movie around Paul Revere's famous ride. No timetable is set for release, but I can guarantee you I will be one of the first in line to see it... perhaps in uniform. HUZZAH!

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