"I want these people dead and buried!"....Edwin Stanton

The Conspirator

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            "In times of war the law falls silent." So says the prosecutor to the defense lawyer after Mary Surratt has been found guilty by a military tribunal of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.. By raising compelling historical questions, The Conspirator builds a bridge to the controversy swirling today around jurisdiction for terrorist trials. Was Surratt entitled to a trial by a jury of her peers? And so you are forgiven if, while watching this story, you ask yourself if the law always falls silent in time of fear. The Cold War/McCarthy, 9/11/The Patriot Act, the WWII internment of Japanese American citizens.
            The filmmakers have succeeded in overcoming formidable obstacles in filming true stories. If the principals of a story lived during our lifetimes, it is hard to watch actors portray them. If the principals are long gone, it is hard to see dialogue presented as fact. And perhaps most problematic, it is hard to find young actors who can portray the past without contemporary cadences and inflections.
            Robert Redford, directing without melodramatic flourishes, once again earns the public trust. All the main players contribute to making this a credible version of an historical chapter we have known only in outline. Ford's Theater is iconic; carrying Lincoln across the alley to the Peterson house is a legendary image; and the shooting of Booth in the Virginia barn is known through historians. But how much have we heard about the roundup and trial of the conspirators?
            The probable reason for this historical blank is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's (Kevin Kline) determination to preserve the union in time of panic. "I want these people dead and buried!" His command ensured that the issues that arose during the trial were quickly buried along with the bodies of the conspirators. Grant and Lee had met at Appomattox, but word of the surrender had not yet reached the outlying battlefields. The trial unfolded in the still hot fury and sadness of the war that was just ending.
            James McAvoy, playing Frederick Aiken, the young lawyer who reluctantly undertakes Surratt's defense at the urging of his mentor Senator Reverdy Johnson (a grand performance by Tom Wilkinson), is thoroughly believable as he raises the questions ignored by the Tribunal. Robin Wright portrays Surratt with skillful use of the woman's stoic silences and expressions. The military officers of the Tribunal, led by Colm Meany's David Hunter and prosecutor Danny Huston's Joseph Holt, reflect the rage of the Northern generals. They are the stone wall against the defense McAvoy's Aiken tries to build. Alexis Bledel (Aiken's girlfriend) and Evan Rachel Wood (Surratt's daughter) succeed in becoming women of the time.
            As for detail, you may wonder about the umbrellas held over the guilty as they are led to the gallows. It was 95 degrees in Washington that day, and the executioners took no chances that excessive sweat would allow the nooses to slide off the necks of the plotters. This is mesmerizing history.


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