One scrappy lawyer attempts to stick up for the civil liberties of Mary Surratt, alleged party to a plot to bring down the Union government, in The Conspirator, a Law & Order: Civil War about the trial of the people connected to President Lincoln’s assassination.
In the immediately post-Civil-War criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the Union army that chases down the assassins of the president and, uhm, other members of the Union army who prosecute the offenders in a military court martial. (Ooo, ooo, new spin-off idea: Law & Order: Court Martial! Excuse me while I figure out how to contact Dick Wolf….) Since John Wilkes Booth (Tobey Kebbell) is killed when he’s nearly captured, the people left to prosecute are the men who traveled with him, who attacked Secretary of State Seward and who helped Booth escape D.C., knowingly or not.
When the accusations shake out, one of the unknowns is the role of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Washington D.C. boardinghouse owner who knew Booth. Or maybe, whose son John (Johnny Simmons) knew Booth but didn’t herself get involved in whatever business they had together. Or maybe, who helped prepare items for Booth’s getaway. Or maybe who was just trying to keep the secret of her son’s involvement in an earlier plot with Booth to kidnap the president but who didn’t know anything about the assassination.
Because of her less-than-clear-cut role in the crime and because she’s a woman and because he felt the proceedings in general were a trampling of the Constitution, Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) decides to represent Surratt in court and asks recently retired Union captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to be his second chair. Aiken is not, at first, delighted by this. He saw Lincoln the night he was shot and still has memories of war and thinks Surratt is probably guilty. And his friends, including Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), the girl who waited for him lo these many years of war, do not think his work on the case is particularly cool either. But then Johnson decides that, because of his Maryland background, he can’t adequately defend Surratt, and he leaves Aiken, because of his solid Union credentials, to run the defense. Aiken soon finds himself driven to, if nothing else, overcome the inherent inequities for a civilian at a military trial and give Surratt the vigorous defense she deserves.
Deserves, though may not want, because underlying even her attempts to defend herself is Mary’s desire not to further implicate her son.
Wouldn’t this make a great episode of The Good Wife?
I’m going to leave aside the squalling bag of cats that is the politics of this movie and director Robert Redford’s attempts to draw parallels between military trials of civilians done in the name of security. And I don’t feel confident enough in the historical facts as this movie presents them to say whether what he’s doing is fair. (It just so happens that I recently read Manhunt, the book by James L. Swanson about the hunt for Lincoln’s killer. It’s a real edge-of-your-seat read that will give you maybe a better sense of the lay of the land at the time.) So, let’s just focus on the courtroom stuff, which is actually lots of fun. Even the casual Law & Order watcher will want to shout “objection” at some of the showboating of prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and the extreme unreliability of some of the witnesses. No defense attorney would have let Jack McCoy get away with this much prejudicial yet circumstantial evidence. But, of course, that’s the point — Aiken has the deck stacked against him: jury of Union military judges, witnesses who can be bullied into testifying or be labeled as traitors, different rules of evidence than you’d get in a civilian court. The fun of the puzzle is teasing out ways to fight back and pull threads of reasonable doubt out of a case that is all sewn up. And, yes, here’s where you can discuss the military trials of Guantanamo detainees. But taken strictly as a movie about Constitutional funny business and legal maneuvering, The Conspirator had me all but filling out law school applications.
I give Redford points for not making, well, Lions for Lambs (his shrill movie about war) about the right to a jury trial. Nobody’s performances here should have them clearing space on their mantels for an Oscar, but they would all be right at home in the legal procedural that this movie quickly became for me — and if that sounds like an insult, think of some of the best episodes of Law & Order and consider how few movies are as good. B
Rated PG-13 for some violent content. Directed by Robert Redford and written by James D. Solomon and Gergory Bernstein, The Conspirator is two hours and three minutes long and distributed by Roadside Attractions.