When it comes to American presidents, Abraham Lincoln stands atop a lofty pedestal all by himself — beyond reproach and certainly beyond scandal. It’s hard to conjure a mental picture other than that of the marble Lincoln Memorial statue, seated in Washington, D.C., as the words of the Gettysburg Address carved into its wall hammer away at the brain.
A similarly rigid image is at work in “The Conspirator,” based on the story of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent trial of Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house frequented by John Wilkes Booth and others involved in the crime. Surrat was accused of running “the nest that hatched the rotten egg,” as one of the lines goes in the movie. For this, she was tried by a military tribunal and hanged. She was 42.
Robert Redford is at the helm of “The Conspirator,” a densely ponderous film that challenges the viewer to scale a new cliff-face of a cinematic experience. Those expecting a courtroom drama rich in romantic heroism with an appropriate tearful closure at the end will be mightily disappointed.
If there’s a reward to watching “The Conspirator,” it’s probably in sensing Redford’s indomitable will to instruct and provoke. When it opened in the United States two years ago, there was some criticism that it felt less like a movie than an academic treatise. Indeed, there are not a few stentorian moments when you feel like some professor is yelling in a crowded lecture room as if he can’t trust people to listen.
Redford and screenwriter James Solomon spent years researching the material, examining the evidence and sifting through testimonials that go back over 150 years. The meticulous, re-creating-the-dinosaur-from-the-bones process of it is there in every frame, and Redford seems adamant for the viewer to witness it all, every step of the way.
On the other hand, this is less tiring than you may think. “The Conspirator” is an extremely handsome film to look at, and Robin Wright as Surratt — with her black dress, square jaw and knobby hands — comes off like an extremely elegant (if excessively puritanical) piece of antique furniture. Throughout the film she says very little and Redford is careful not to imbue her with the least bit of anything that may be interpreted as romantic.
Most of the burden of emoting is laid on the shoulders of Surratt’s young defense lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Army vet persuaded by his senator boss Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to take the job, since no Southerner could have represented Surratt without compromising the case.
So far, so judicial. But in the process of questioning the clam-mouthed Surratt, Aiken gradually learns that the powers that be aren’t interested in adhering to the law: They need to close the case quickly to placate a public howling for revenge, and to avoid creating fissures in a fragile government consisting of men who, not long before, had been shooting each other on a battlefield.
Aiken himself served for four long years, and this assignment of defending Surratt brings back tons of unwelcome memories. His sensitivity becomes a target of scorn for his client, whose defiant toughness seems superhuman, and for the masterful, bullying tactics of the prosecuting attorney (Danny Huston).
Pretty soon, Aiken becomes confused as to whom or what he’s supposed to be protecting (surely Surratt has little wish to protect her own hide). Johnson sets him straight by telling the young lawyer that he’s representing the ideals of the American Constitution.
It’s an “oh, really?” moment that flashes by without giving us a chance to fully savor its irony. The Constitution specifies that no civilian should be tried by a military court, but that’s exactly what happens to Surratt. She can’t testify in her own defense, and her lawyer can’t gather witnesses or evidence on his own, so the trial moves with an even pace toward a foregone conclusion. Aiken is less angry about this than he should be.
Still, a residual resentment festers, especially after Aiken becomes convinced that Surratt is really shielding her son John (Johnny Simmons), who had lived in the boarding house and was often seen in the company of Booth. Immediately after the assassination, John fled the country while his mother hanged for a crime of which she may or may not have been guilty.
And what was this crime? In the movie, Surratt is accused of “aiding and abetting” Booth and his men — it’s as vague as that.
One of the film’s successes is in its portrayal of Aiken — and how the biggest trial of his career brings him no satisfaction. He just has to watch as an American ideal of justice is trampled in the mud. And as on the battlefield, he’s powerless to stop it.