Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
"The Conspirator," Robert Redford's latest film, takes up the story in a postwar Washington convincingly shot on location in Savannah, Ga. He approaches it as a legal procedural, concerned not only with the case but with the legal precedents it established, which we are still dealing with today. Crucially, the case tried a civilian in a military tribunal, denying her the right to a jury of peers that is guaranteed in the Constitution.
This civilian was named Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). She owned a boarding house in Washington, D.C., where Booth and his fellow plotters met. They were brought there by her son, John. Her son fled but Mrs. Surratt was charged as a co-conspirator. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline), the de facto power in Washington, despite the presence of President Andrew Johnson, wanted her tried and convicted quickly, to placate an enraged population. He gave the assignment to defense attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who passed it to a young Union veteran named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy).
Aiken wanted nothing to do with it. He felt she must be guilty. Johnson, a Southerner, felt he couldn't take the case with passions running so high, and forced the job upon Aiken, explaining that Surratt had a right to a competent defense. Surratt is certainly not helpful to her young attorney, because her only thought is to protect her son. Gradually, however, Aiken begins to believe it is possible she was not involved in the meetings of the conspirators.
Redford considers this material in an unusually literate and thoughtful historical film, working from years of research by his screenwriter, James Solomon. I found it absorbing and relevant today. It is useful to reflect that it isn't "her" constitutional rights that are being violated, but our own, because the Constitution must be seen to work equally for all or it loses its strength for everyone. The language and reasoning of Stanton echo with similar statements by Bush and Cheney in defense of the Patriot Act, and Reverdy Johnson in this reading would represent Obama, more a compromiser than an idealist.