The Conspirator

Continuing with the American History theme in this week’s film-watching, I caught Robert Redford’s The Conspirator this morning. Awesome. I admit, I cried a bit. You know, Redford’s previous attempt to criticize the Bush government’s abuses of power – Lions for Lambs – was a complete clunker and virtually unwatchable? This time though, he couches his righteous indignation within one of the most painful moments in the US’s turbulent history, in the events surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln. His film focuses on the show trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman tried for the monstrous crime, and whose boarding house was the meeting place of the conspirators (who included her 21 year old son Johnny.)

Guilly? Innocent? Involved? Not? Well that’s not really the point. Because to the horror of her lawyer and her surviving daughter (and to the horror of me, in the audience) the Secretary of War is basically out for a mighty swift revenge that will prevent any such event happening again. In the panic and scramble, all her rights are essentially stripped, as a civilian she becomes subject to a Military tribunal, is judged by nine military men rather than a jury of her peers, and her right to council is undermined. In the light of the Bush government’s treatment of Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, for example – designating them “enemy combatants” and asserting the power to hold them indefinitely, without charges and without access to counsel, there’s clearly a terrible historical parallel post 9-11.

So, big, important themes. But it’s also tremendously well executed. Every scene is painstakingly stylish, the casting is pitch-perfect (James McAvoy and Robin Wright, excellent) and even the pacing is great for a court-room drama. And it filmed in historic Savannah, one of my favorite US cities, and an evocative, photogenic place I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the years. It was wonderful to see the city come to life on the screen, and the streets that I’ve walked on too many occasions to recount, transformed into their muddy, horse-drawn, gas-lit glory. Loved it.

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