Why is it that so many of the best historical period films have executions. Sir Thomas More, played superbly by Paul Scofield, in A Man for all Seasons met the axeman’s blade at the cost of his head. The film garnered six Oscars. Braveheart walked away with 5 Oscars and Mel Gibson as William Wallace died as his body was being pulled apart screaming ‘freedom‘. Anne Boleyn (Anne of the Thousand Days) was beheaded; and Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is another such film. Taken from the pages of American history, Redford and a new outfit, The American Film Company, have just released The Conspirator, a recreation of the assassination of American President Abraham Lincoln on April 14th, 1865, and the aftermath which resulted in a trial and execution of the conspirators.
The film pays an enormous amount of attention to costumes, make up, lighting, period homes and furnishings. In short the production simply oozes value. The stars are James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the passionate defense attorney, Robin Wright as Mary Surratt – the accused, Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson, a Senator from Maryland, Kevin Kline as Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, Danny Houston as Joseph Holt, the government’s prosecuting attorney, and Colm Meany as General Hunter, the presiding justice of the military tribunal that tried Mary Surratt.
Lincoln’s assassination occurs minutes into the film, and shortly thereafter John Wilkes Booth is shot dead in a barn. You can consider all of this as just the appetizers. The film spent no time in showing us the planning or the detection, or the apprehension of the conspirators. The meat and potatoes of the film is the trial.
Tom Wilkinson plays a US Senator and a lawyer. He’s really a talented actor. He was British General Cornwallis in Gibson’s The Patriot, and he was a lawyer who met a nasty fate in the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton. Here he begins as the lead counsel for the defense, appointed by Kline’s Secretary of War. He asks McAvoy’s Aiken to sit as second chair, but once he got a good sense of the lay of the land regarding the trial he bowed out.
McAvoy is quite good as the lawyer who defends Mary Surratt. At the beginning he’s quite convinced that she’s guilty, but when the government stacks the deck by shifting the trial to a military tribunal instead of a criminal courts trial – he also takes measure of the circumstances, and he will change his mind and attempt to mount a vigorous defense.
Surratt is a poignant figure. Robin Wright has to play the role with a proper amount of stoicism, and resignation. Surratt has her principles – she’s after all a southerner and was not all that enamored of Lincoln, and she is a protective mother. Wright brings us to a dilemma in that we are going to root for her guilty or not, yet she’s not an easily likeable character.
Colm Meany is quite efficient as the presiding justice at the trial. He overruled every objection made by Aiken, and supported every objection made by Holt. The trial was so obviously intended to find for the prosecution, that the defense had no chance at all.
That brings us to Kline’s Edward Stanton who plays the Secretary of War. This role called for Kline to espouse the theory that justice would have to be tossed out the window in order to calm the country. When Aiken claimed that the trial was a denial of the very rights guaranteed by the Constitution, Stanton’s answer was – what good are the rights if the government and the country fall into chaos. He felt that the nation would be best served if the guilty would be dealt with quickly, efficiently, and then they would soon be forgotten. The country would be able to put this darkness behind it and move on.
Many have said that Redford’s agenda was to use this historical case as a beacon of light which lands on today’s Guatanamo Bay and today’s military trials. If this is the case, then Redford lost his movie to make a mission statement.
The movie is well made, but you don’t feel the fiery passion of a defense attorney. In fact you barely feel for the wronged defendants. It is as if you know what you’re watching isn’t right – but the film makes no attempt to win you over. It shows you the wrong doing – but by doing so in such a one-sided manner, you feel like you’re being hit over the head to make you a believer, rather than offering a more balanced proposition.
When those found guilty are led to the gallows, and we watch the execution in all of its details…it was so matter of fact, and bloodless. We didn’t feel a vindication for the dead President, nor did we feel sorry for those whose lives ended at the end of a rope before our eyes.
Redford’s direction of the screenplay by James D. Solomon was near flawless technically, but the script itself yielded only a few memorable lines, and almost no passion for the viewers. A good try at best.