With all the attention being given to the Civil War, seeing “The Conspirator” proved irresistible. This new film by Robert Redford depicts the trial of Mary Surratt, one of those charged with conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The central characters are Surratt and Frederick Aiken, the young Union Army veteran (and bright but inexperienced pre-war lawyer) who begrudgingly agrees to represent her.
The early scenes that show the murder of the President and the concurrent attacks on other government officials are unnerving in their depiction of how the world changed in an instant. The investigation, manhunt and trial then fill the balance of the film.
Though a civilian, Surratt was tried before a military tribunal and that trial is the vehicle for Redford to pose the central question of the film: What happens to the Consitution and its guarantee of individual rights at a time of great national crisis. Aiken and his mentor, Maryland Senator Reverday Johnson, constantly remind us that the Constitution should not be cast aside, especially when it seems most convenient to do so while Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who took control of the government right after the assassination (“keep the vice president away from here and keep him away from the bottle”) made the case that if the country were to perish, the Constitution would too.
Emotions are tugged when Surratt is first convicted and sentenced to death only to have Aiken find a Federal judge to issue a Writ of Habeas Corpus ordering the government to produce Surratt in his courtroom for a hearing on a motion for a new trial before a civilian court. The pendulum swings wildly back, however, when President Johnson suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus which leads to Surratt’s immediate execution.
Just as the viewer is condemning Johnson’s dastardly deed, the historically minded in the audience recall that in 1861, President Lincoln did the exact same thing – suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus – and Johnson’s act seems somehow less despicable. We are left understanding that history is all about the grays and rarely about black and white. In “The Conspirators”, Redford stays in the gray area for as much as he evokes sympathy for Surratt, he also leaves us with the feeling that she is guilty. Still, when her son (who was clearly more involved than she was) was finally captured eighteen months later, he was tried before a civilian jury which failed to reach a unanimous verdict and he was never convicted.
It’s no secret that Redford’s politics lie to the left and it’s no coincidence that he poses the question about the supremacy of the Constitution in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, but to me, Redford did not make a one-sided movie about the evils of military tribunals. To me, Redford’s message was that to find the right balance of collective security and individual rights, advocates of each side must zealously promote their positions and be respectful of each other’s opinions. Only then, can the best solution win out. But when one side condemns the advocates of the other position, questions their motives and impugns their patriotism, the environment becomes ripe for dangerous abuses. In “The Conspirators”, Frederick Aiken intensely disliked Mary Surratt, but he set that aside and zealously presented her case. For that, he was ostracized by his government, society, and many of those closest to him. To me, the message of “The Conspirators” wasn’t so much that the system failed Mary Surratt, it was that the system failed Frederick Aiken.