A courtroom drama exposing the little known story of the trial of Mary Surratt after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, The Conspirator is both gripping and a rather formal flag-waving exercise – men with whiskers and high collars proselytising on the processes of the legal system in times of war. Yes, it’s 1865 on screen, but director Robert Redford clearly has one eye on the Guantanamo Military Commission and the actions of President George W. Bush and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the aftermath of 9-11.
The films opens at the tail end of the American Civil War with a depiction of that part of the story we all surely know – the infamous assassination of President Lincoln by the actor John Wilkes Booth at a theatre in Washington. We also meet a man less well known to history, the distinguished Union army hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) who became the defense attorney for Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman in the group of conspirators rounded up and put before a Military Tribunal that was clearly after vengeance. At first reluctant to defend a catholic and a Southerner, Aiken slowly comes to realise that what’s really at stake is not just the truth of Mary’s involvement in the scheme, but the process of justice itself and the values of the newly emerging nation. Ultimately Aiken comes to find that his real opponent is not the rigged courtroom and the public demand for revenge, but the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who seems to be pulling the strings from behind the doors of power.
It’s definitely an advantage to know very little about the events of the trial and of Mary Surratt. The unfolding of her story, told in flashbacks as the trial progresses, makes for powerful personal drama, with Robin Wright giving a stoically honorable performance. However, Redford is less interested in pursuing this personal side of the story than he is in the edification of viewers about the effects of political interference in the justice system. “This is a frightened country,” declares the Attorney General Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to his nemesis the Secretary of War, “and we don’t need any more fear.” It’s this kind of clumsy liberal politics, and the quick and easy demarcation of the story’s goodies and baddies that simplify what could have been rich and complex tale into a bit of a tub-thumper.