In The Conspirator, Robert Redford’s courtroom drama about President Lincoln’s assassination, it became clear to me that as a storyteller Redford fearlessly burrows into moral and ethical dilemmas in order to excavate The Truth, and make sure it survives. He did that to hilarious effect in “The Milagro Beanfield War,” and does it here in high dramatic fashion.
After surviving the war, Union army captain and lawyer Frederick Aiken (brilliantly played by Scotsman James McAvoy with an impeccable American accent) is arm-twisted by Senator Reverdy Johnson (another of Tom Wilkinson’s finely rendered wise/wily jurists) into defending Mary Surratt (a powerfully stoic Robin Wright), who is accused of participating in a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.
Kevin Kline plays war secretary Edwin Stanton, who holds the puppet strings to the corrupt wartime courtroom that will stop at nothing to secure the American people’s (assumed) need for closure on the Lincoln murder, by executing a scapegoat—even if that means willfully subverting the truth and killing a possibly innocent woman.
The film is elaborately costumed and shot in a misty/grainy light to convey the fusty dust of history, and is largely chiaroscuro due to the candlelit evening and night scenes. The opening 10 minutes drags a bit, but then Redford hits his stride, and the story roars to life.
The truth about the war department’s cover-up of the facts surrounding the Lincoln assassination is only coming to light for public consumption exactly 136 years later. This is clarification about who was involved, what Mary Surratt knew (she rented rooms to the conspirators at her inn), what her son and daughter knew, which string was attached to which puppet, and how the puppets themselves held other strings, and where, in turn, those strings led to. There’s much back-and-forth between Surratt’s prison cell and the courtroom, with defense lawyer Aiken gathering information and checking facts.
Slowly we see his Northern hatred of Southerner Surratt begin to dissipate, as he comes to see the humanity behind the rebel flag. In light of our tendency to forget, The Conspirator asks us to have another look at the question of whether it’s ever okay to subvert the truth and the law in order to support a “greater good,” to facilitate a “larger cause”—that is, keep the people sedated by manufacturing their bliss through force-fed ignorance.
The real unsung hero of this fine film, even perhaps more so than Redford, is history buff, entrepreneur, and executive producer Joe Ricketts, founder of online brokerage firm Ameritrade as well as The American Film Company. The truth will out, and it’s good to have people like Ricketts and Redford doing the excavating.