Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"The Conspirator" with Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline and Robin Wright Penn

Robert Redford has done a remarkable job in the filming of his latest movie "The Conspirator", which deals with the trial and execution of the assassins involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and the attempted murder, by Lewis Powell, of Secretary of State William H.Seward, who would later buy Alaska from Russia, in his home, where he was recovering from a carriage accident and lay in traction.

In addition there was also a plan, by three other conspirators, to kidnap or kill, both Vice President Johnson and General Grant. The latter was to have been at Ford's Theater that night, but in one of several instances of what can only be termed ESP, Mrs Grant persuaded her husband to depart Washington some 4 hours before the carnage began. (She would later save his life again in Chicago on the night of October 7th, 1876 when they were to have stayed over in a wooden hotel. Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked the lanten, the hotel burned down, killing all, but sparing Grant and his wife, who were by now long gone.)

The movie is historically accurate and impeccably filmed. Out of necessity it confines itself to the trial proceedings of Mary Surratt, played with much dignity by Robin Wright Penn, as the widowed boarding house keeper, who was charged with conspiracy in the death of President Lincoln. Her attorney, Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy, is a Union soldier, a veteran of the war who has little use for, and no desire to, defend her.

Appointed against his will as Defense Counsel in the Military Tribunal which would serve as the trial of the conspirators (we were still at war when the crimes occurred) Lt. Aiken has no desire to defend Mrs. Surratt. He is openly contemptuous of all the conspirators, believing that they are all guilty and should be hung. But as the story unfolds, even though there is little doubt that the charges are all true, Lt. Aiken comes to see the trial for what it is, a quick way to bury the whole affair, without ever really arriving at the whole truth behind the assassination plot. There is still credible speculation today that General McClellan, having opposed Lincoln in the Party Convention of 1864 as a candidate for President, was involved in the plot. He had also been fired by Lincoln, who replaced him with General Grant.

Denied any access to witnesses, cross examination, papers and documents, as well as not being allowed to confer with the accused prior to the trial, make it impossible for Lt. Aiken to do his job in defending Mrs. Surratt. But as he comes to realize the error of rushing to judgement, he is forced to deal with his feelings about the powers that have been given to him, and by whom.

The history contained in this film already being well known, I cannot be considered a "spoiler" when I tell you that he loses the case and Mrs. Surratt is hung along with her co-conspirators. She would be the only woman put to death by the Federal Government until 1950, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both electrocuted for passing the hydrogen bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.

With many parallels to today's War Tribunals, the rush to judgement after John Kennedy was killed, and the humanitarian issues involved in the Rosenberg case, this film is engaging and tightly woven. The whole story takes place in the space of 10 weeks.

Top notch performances by all, and flawless direction by Robert Redford make this a must-see film for all. From the politically correct, anti tribunal crowd, to the "hang 'em high" viewer, this film has something for everyone, even serious history buffs such as myself.

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