The Conspirator was recently released on the anniversary of President Lincoln’s death and in the same month marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Although the setting of the movie takes place in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the issues the film deals with are very much alive today.  In fact, The Conspirator can be viewed as a parable about the rule of law during a period of national crisis, in much the same way that Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible used the Salem witchcraft trials to comment on the political hysteria of the McCarthy era.

It goes without saying that the Civil War was the most searing experience in U.S history. Six hundred thousand people were killed (almost twice the number of American fatalities in World War II).  In the closing days of the conflict President Lincoln was assassinated.  There have been few moments in United States history that could have been so emotionally charged. The heightened atmosphere in 1865 must have resembled much of the intense national feeling following the September 11, 2011 attacks.  The Conspirator examines the political will of maintaining normal, fair judicial procedures at a time when national survival is perceived to be at stake, or when there is a simple collective desire for unvarnished vengeance. The Conspirator is in essence an indirect commentary on the issue on how prisoners should be treated in the age of terrorism.

The plot of the film centers on Mary Surratt who ran a boarding house where conspirators met to plan the assassination of President Lincoln and several other senior members of the national government. Surratt was brought to trial before a military tribunal in a proceeding that is portrayed as unfair and rigged. Robin Wright gives a stoic performance of Surratt who was determined to protect her son. John. John is portrayed as being far more involved in the conspiracy and ironically avoided conviction by a civil jury after the war.

James McAvoy is spirited as Frederick Aiken, a former Union officer who is initially dubious about defending Surratt. He ultimately offers a strong defense, attempting to enforce traditional legal procedure in a trial that appears to be only interested in a politically acceptable outcome.  Aiken suffers from social ostracism when his defense of due process and Surratt process proves unpopular. The story arc of The Conspirator raises the question of how vigorously society will defend the rule of law when national security (either justifiably or not) appears to be at stake.   Aiken has the wisdom of realizing that civilization depends on the enforcement of legal edicts, even when those laws rub against the immediate emotional grain.

Kevin Kline gives an imposing, almost authoritarian performance of Secretary of War Edward Stanton, who according to the film, placed greater emphasis on closure and domestic defense rather than following judicial norms. Kline’s acting range can be seen by comparing his performance of Stanton to his role in last summer’s The Extra Man, in which he played a daffy, eccentric socialite.

The film was produced and directed by Robert Redford and his typical concern about contemporary political and social issues is clearly expressed in the movie.  In addition to the topical debate about the use of military versus civilian tribunals, The Conspirator also makes reference to the treatment (or abuse) of prisoners accused of politically driven crimes.

It is too early in the season to predict with any degree of certainly, but The Conspirator could be a contender for a Best Picture Oscar nomination next year because of the relevance of the issues it addresses. Although some may find the allegorical aspects of the film a little too transparent, the movie is a fine example of art and film inviting audiences to think seriously about events and issues surrounding them. The topic of balancing national security with the rule of law is obviously a serious, difficult subject.  But as one of the characters states in The Conspirator, “The answer is not abandoning the Constitution.”

Interestingly, at the conclusion of the film, reference is made to the fact that Frederick Aiken became the first city editor at the Washington Post, which brings to mind another Robert Redford/Washington Post film dealing with the rule of law, All the President’s Men. But that is another story…