Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Conspirator (2010)

Mary Surratt: Have you ever believed in something far greater than yourself? 
 —The Conspirator (2010)
Occasionally there are films made which are so contrary to cultural trends that they almost qualify as miraculous. One such film is Robert Redford's masterpiece The Conspirator, starring James McAvoy and Robin Wright in brilliant performances as the lawyer Frederick Aiken and his client Mary Surratt. Mary Jenkins Surratt was the first woman in American history ever to be executed by the federal government. She was accused of participating in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln because her son and one of her tenants were marginally involved. Mary was condemned by a military tribunal on flimsy evidence, but then the tribunal did not require as much evidence as a civilian court.

As Steven Greydanus says at Decent Films:
Mary Surratt was a Southern Catholic widow who ran a boarding house where Booth and his fellow conspirators often met — and whose son John was the only one of Booth’s fellow conspirators to evade capture in the months after the assassination. Was Mrs. Surratt prosecuted by way of trying her fugitive son by proxy? Or, if she was a conspirator, to which conspiracy was she a party? For that matter, to which was John?

To these historically minded questions The Conspirator adds a pointedly topical theme. Mrs. Surratt and her fellow defendants were prosecuted, not in a civil trial before a jury of their peers, but by a military tribunal. Were the verdict and the sentence essentially determined beforehand? Guilty or not, was the Constitution and the rule of law upheld or flouted? If the government was free to treat Mrs. Surratt as it did, how safe are any of us?...

Yet the widespread critical take on The Conspirator as a lefty tract is unconvincing to me — and not just because I find it too dramatically and historically compelling to label a tract. A few years ago it might have played as a partisan indictment of the Bush administration’s expansions of executive power. Today, though, with many of Bush’s critics chagrined by the Obama administration’s perpetuation and even advancement of similar policies, concern for rule of law and limited government powers can’t be claimed as a partisan issue in the same way.....
Politics aside, Mary's Catholic faith is highlighted throughout the film as the source if her strength and serenity. The way the director plays light against darkness in any number of scenes illustrates the luminosity of belief amid injustice and corrupt politics. Along with her trust in God, Mary is consumed with protecting her children in any way she can, even at cost to herself. She will not help Aiken shift the guilt upon her son John and prefers to accept the full weight of punishment, all the while maintaining her innocence. As it stands, Secretary of War William Stanton (portrayed in all his deviousness by Kevin Kline) is determined that Mary shall die, innocent or not, in order to sate the public's desire for revenge. A poor widow from Southern Maryland, who had sympathized with the losing side, is the perfect scapegoat for the wrath of the people.

Aiken's battle for justice, in spite of the fact that Mary's guilt is predetermined, makes him an unwilling hero; his instinctive chivalry and respect for the Constitution compel him to become Mary's champion. Wounded during the War between the States, Aiken finds himself in the middle of an altogether different struggle which has, nevertheless, long-term consequences for the American people and whether or not they are going to be governed by the Constitution and the rule of law or by sentiment and hysteria. As for Mary, having already endured an abusive marriage to an alcoholic, she well knows that there is no true justice on earth. Rosary in hand, she walks to the scaffold as brave as any soldier on the field. Even as there are different ways of doing battle, so there are different paths to victory, and Mary finds her in the end.

 (Image Source)

More on Mary Surratt, HERE and HERE. Share


Julygirl said...

Robin Wrights best work. The James McAvoy character was about the only person who did care about the Constitution, which was ignored throughout the war by The President and the rest of his administration. Kevin Kline is wonderful in the role of Stanton....was barely recognizable as the beloved character actor he is known to be.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree!