Friday, April 15, 2011

The Conspirator: Rule of panic

The Conspirator (2011) • View trailer for The Conspirator
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.15.11

Trust Robert Redford to find a historical courtroom drama that shrewdly echoes current events.

The Conspirator, set in the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, focuses on what many view as a moral imperative: the need to adhere to the rules of American law, even — and most particularly — during times of national crisis. Vengeance, bloodlust and perceived expediency cannot be allowed to dictate our behavior, lest we sink to the level of those we presume to judge.
Having won his client, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the privilege of some fresh
air and sunshine after having been confined to a dingy, straw-filled cell, attorney
Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) accepts an invitation to sit with her. Much to
his surprise, he's beginning to see this woman less as a "heinous Confederate,"
and more as a human being.

One cannot imagine a better project for Redford, who has based his recent directing career on politically charged content. While not nearly as shrill as 2007’s Lions for Lambs, this film is just as likely to divide viewers along predictable party lines, and that’s a shame; the message here is equally crucial for those on either side of the partisan divide.

For if nobody is safe from the possibility of a witch hunt dressed up to resemble a court of law, then we’re all vulnerable ... depending only on who’s in charge, or shouts the loudest, at any given moment.

That’s ... unsettling.

We tend to forget, all these years later, that Lincoln wasn’t the only target that fateful night of April 14, 1865; the assassins who shot him while the president enjoyed an evening of theater also attempted to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The goal was nothing less than a complete overthrow of government, arranged by ultra-loyalist Southerners inflamed by the outcome of the Civil War, just five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

The man responsible for killing Johnson succumbed to nerves and never made the attempt. Seward, recovering from a nasty fall a few weeks earlier, probably survived his attack thanks to the neck brace that deflected his would-be assassin’s numerous knife blows.

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. the following day. This film’s distributor, Roadside Attractions, deserves credit for cleverly releasing The Conspirator on April 15.

Historians generally agree that the plot was orchestrated by popular stage actor John Wilkes Booth, who was killed during the subsequent manhunt. Numerous other conspirators were rounded up, some of whom made no attempt to conceal their actions.

This film’s storyline, thoughtfully scripted by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, focuses on one alleged conspirator whose involvement seemed open to doubt: Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house where Booth and his cronies frequently met to discuss their plans. Initially, Surratt was but one of scores of people arrested and imprisoned solely because they may have known or come into casual contact with Booth and his fellow plotters. But the suspects eventually were narrowed down to the eight people brought before a military tribunal that began May 1; Mary Surratt was the lone woman among the eight.

All were civilians, and all were tried not by a jury of their peers, but in front of a military court of nine officers who needed only reach a simple majority for conviction, and a two-thirds majority for a death sentence.

The unconstitutional nature of this trial incenses Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a veteran attorney with an abiding respect for the rule of law. He argues that his longtime colleague, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), is wrong to push for this sort of proceeding; Stanton, in return, insists that a quick and “very public” resolution is necessary, in order to help heal a nation already ripped in half by the recently concluded war.

Indeed, the battlefield horrors aren’t even over yet; a few stubborn Confederate units are fighting to the last.

Johnson is shrewd enough to recognize that his well-known “appeasement” sympathies make him the wrong man to become the public face of this unpopular stand. He therefore appoints newly minted lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a much-decorated Union war hero, to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright).

Aiken wants nothing to do with the case, believing that representing a Confederate woman would mock the Union men who fought by his side during the war. But Johnson passionately argues from the point of view that we’ve grown to recognize, all these years later: every suspect deserves the best possible defense, and every lawyer should feel honor-bound to provide it.

Reluctantly, at first, Aiken does his best against a proceeding stacked grotesquely in favor of Judge Advocate Gen. Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), leading the prosecution team. Initially, Surratt also wants nothing to do with her young Union attorney, but as the “trial” proceeds — as even Aiken grows disgusted by the lengths to which Maj. Gen. David Hunter (Colm Meaney) will go, to guarantee conviction — the young defense attorney and his client become uneasy allies.

Redford’s film draws its power from two parallel dynamics: the increasingly one-sided clashes between Aiken and his opponents, represented mostly by Holt and Hunter; and the calmer conversations between Aiken and Surratt, in between her courtroom appearances. McAvoy is completely convincing at all times, both as a passionate attorney who gradually recognizes that law is being buried beneath expediency, and as an intelligent, inquisitive young man who begins to sympathize with his client.

The courtroom sequences are crisply staged and paced for maximum impact; even if completely accepting the likely guilt of all eight suspects, we can’t suppress a growing sense of outrage over the dirty tricks pulled by the prosecution. But McAvoy’s calmer scenes with Penn, credibly gaunt and strained as Surratt, are equally compelling. Their conversations frequently are philosophical, as befits this sort of narrative, but we readily accept the artifice; the dialogue may be calculated to emphasize the script’s essentially talking points, but McAvoy and Wright have no trouble selling their scenes.

I’m less satisfied with those playing the folks in Aiken’s personal life, most particularly Alexis Bledel’s wholly unpersuasive performance as Sarah Weston, Aiken’s fiancée. Bledel neither looks nor acts like she belongs to the 19th century; her flat line readings merely reinforce the notion that she’s “acting” in a dress-up costume drama. And Bledel looks even more clumsy when compared to Evan Rachel Wood, who is far more credible in her role as Mary Surratt’s daughter, Anna.

(We can’t help wondering, given the facts that eventually emerge, why Anna Surratt isn’t also on trial; given Stanton’s apparent blood-lust, her liberty throughout these events is puzzling.)

Justin Long is the primary face of Aiken’s many close friends and colleagues, who repeatedly question his willingness not only to accept this unpopular courtroom assignment, but the growing fervor with which he decries the tribunal’s behavior. But Long’s character is oddly superficial, and his exchanges with McAvoy have a frat house triviality that seems wholly out of place in this drama. One expects Aiken to have friends with greater depth and intelligence.

Kline brings crisp authority to Staton’s harsh viewpoint, and Wilkinson is equally feisty as the idealistic yin to the Secretary of War’s yang. Familiar character actor Stephen Root has a memorable scene as a prosecution witness whose testimony seems blatantly bought and coerced. Huston, always wonderfully persuasive as a devious scoundrel, is the “villain” we love to hate.

Production designer Kalina Ivanov and costume designer Louise Frogley establish an authentic sense of time and place, but Redford doesn’t always work hard enough to ensure that his players properly inhabit this setting. At times, one gets an uneasy feeling that everybody is strolling along Disneyland’s Main Street USA ... which rather yanks us out of the moment.

Fortunately, the riveting courtroom proceedings — and the passionate indignation that leaps from the pages of Solomon and Bernstein’s script — surmount these surface flaws. Wright’s sensitive and complex portrayal of Mary Surratt notwithstanding, I’m inclined to believe the woman was guilty as charged. But that’s not really the point; the issue is how our behavior as a nation, at moments of panic, will be viewed subsequently, when the passage of time has allowed cooler judgment to prevail.

And it’s telling, as one of this film’s closing text crawls informs us, that just one year later, in the 1866 Ex parte Milligan decision, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of military tribunals under circumstances when civil courts are operational.

Given the partisan fervor on both sides of the question regarding whether Guantanamo Bay’s 9/11 terrorism suspects should be tried in civilian court or by a military tribunal — an issue given greater immediacy by the Obama administration’s recent decision — we’re clearly wrestling with this same issue, 150 years later.

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