Thursday, May 05, 2011

What We're Watching: The Conspirator

The Conspirator. For those who have an interest in Civil War history during these years of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, this new movie by director Robert Redford is playing in theaters now. The movie focuses on the capture and trial of the conspirators who planned Lincoln’s murder, and in particular on Mary Surratt and the trial that determined her guilt and led to her public execution. At the center of this story is the young Union Army captain (James McAvoy) who served as her defense council and fought to overcome the insults to justice involved in the conduct of the military tribunal that tried the conspirators. The film is careful to avoid any conclusions about the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), and the main focus of the film is about what happens to our constitutional protections and guarantee of a fair trial in a time of war, when there is widespread fear and the demand for vengeance. We are supposed to make the connection between what happened here and some of the assaults to civil liberties involved in the current war on terrorism. The script is intelligent, and there are fine supporting performances by Kevin Kline (as Edward Stanton) and one of my favorite actors, Tom Wilkinson as a Maryland senator. But I hope it does not diminish the film to say that for one who has read a lot of dry text on the Civil War lately, the set design was my favorite thing about the movie, as old black and white photos blossomed into full color moving images and small details of dress and furnishings brought to life a bygone era.

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