The Conspirator

I had to explain to The Boy who Robert Redford was (he’s seen The Castle), that he was a director of some merit, and also that he was pretty far left wing, just to prepare him to see The Conspirator, Redford’s movie about the trial of Anna Surratt, who was accused of conspiring to kill President Lincoln.

So what we have is a pretty good movie that is (I understand) fairly reasonable in its historical accuracy, but which also brings the Big Clown Hammer down on the audience about the naughtiness of trying American citizens in military court. (And I must confess, I don’t think we’re actually doing that.)

The good parts are James McAvoy’s portrayal of Union war hero Frederick Aiken, Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood as women caught up in public sentiment after being on the losing side of a war (and being Catholic), Kevin Kline as Dick Cheney Secretary of War, Andrew Stanton, and a bunch of always welcome character actors, like Stephen Root and Colm Meaney.

McAvoy’s character development as the lawyer who learns to have a kind of sympathy for a client he does not sympathize with is good. The military tribunal is a kangaroo court, and we’re invited to share in the outrage that the system is being perverted for political ends, which is easy to do. The social toll it takes on him to vigorously defend his client (as he must!) is interesting, if not well followed through on.

It’s also good that the message is a truly liberal one, not a modern “progressive” one. That is, the message of the movie is that the power of the state should not be used unjustly against an individual, and we should all be able to get behind that. (But see the spoilers below for why this movie doesn’t work at that level.)

Less good is Stanton’s almost uncompromising evil. Redford specifically allows him some chances to defend himself so that Redford himself can defend himself from charges that he’s got a one-sided view of things. But it’s weak tea. Maybe it’s not historically accurate, but Stanton had to have some reason for thinking it be necessary to hang the (possible) traitors—and whatever the reason is, it goes a lot further than just Stanton.

A better movie would have given us some reason (beyond the character’s words) to believe there was some merit to their concerns.

I’ve never been a huge Robin Wright, either looks or acting—nothing against either, she just never really made an impression on me—but here the former Princess Buttercup looks harsh, hard and ragged. This was deliberate, of course, but: Mixed feelings!

The Boy and I did like it.

But to tell you the bad parts, I have to spoil the movie, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled (and you don’t know the history, in which case, the movie is already spoiled), then don’t read on.


The movie is about a kangaroo court. This removes a whole lot of possibilities for tension. The Secretary of War wants Surratt dead; you can be pretty sure she’s going to die.

The biggest problem (for me, anyway) comes at the end of the first act, when Surratt confesses to a skeptical Aiken that she didn’t know about the conspiracy to kill Lincoln—only about the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, which was an entirely different conspiracy altogether.

In other words, she was guilty.

Yes, it was a kangaroo court, and kangaroo courts are bad. Yes, witnesses gave false testimony against her. No, they didn’t have enough evidence to convict her.

But she was guilty! We’re splitting hairs. How would a plot to kidnap the President actually be better? Is that really an ameliorating factor? “Yes, your honor, I knew there was a plot to kidnap the scumsucking tyrant who killed all our young men, but we wouldn’t dare have harmed him!”

Even worse? She was really just sort of hanging around the conspirators, and covering for her son who doesn’t show up in time to save her from her fate—but when the son shows up after the Supreme Court demands that civilians be given civilian trials, he gets off!

And he was REALLY guilty! He’s out there on the road waiting to intercept Lincoln’s carriage but Lincoln ends up changing his plans and accidentally thwarting the scheme.

So you have to really be into the process to have this movie resonate with you, I think. It seems to me that the question is far messier than the movie would like to be, to the movie’s detriment.

But, hey, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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