Barely alive on a Civil War battlefield in 1863, surrounded by smoke and corpses, Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) lies beside another wounded Union soldier and soothes him. He’s a stoic sort, you see, and when The Conspirator cuts ahead to 14 April 1865, he’s even more so. As his buddies joke and imagine his grand future in the Lincoln Administration, Aiken takes seriously his opportunity to meet the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) at a military function.
As they look out on this “room full of soldiers,” neither the Secretary nor Aiken can imagine what’s happening down the street at Ford’s Theater—much less how Lincoln’s assassination will change their own lives. The Conspirator marks the odium of the event by cutting from the fete to a series of sinister close-ups—men drinking in a dark bar, creeping in a dark corridor, riding off on a dark horse. Several brief scenes later, the president is dead, John Wilkes Booth is killed, and suspects are rounded up.
Among these is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Owner of a boarding house where the conspirators gathered as well as the mother of one of the most wanted, John Surratt, she’s possessed of a stoicism that makes Aiken look almost cheerful. Dressed in black and repeatedly shot in shadows, Mrs. Surratt appears to take little interest in her own defense. Like the gaunt young men who become her co-defendants, she is denied a civilian trial and instead brought up before a military tribunal. As she is also denied the right to speak in her own defense and is set before a panel of grim-faced men, Surratt becomes the film’s central emblem of U.S. wrongheadedness, an emblem that has as much to do with Guantánamo and Bradley Manning as with post-assassination anxieties during the 19th century.
The Conspirator configures its instruction as Aiken reluctantly accepts the job as Surratt’s defender and then investigates the case. He’s urged—if not precisely manipulated—to take the case by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who believes that if he takes it himself, being a Southerner, Surratt will surely hang. As much as Aiken resents the assignment, as much as he, like his fellow Northerners, believes she’s guilty of an unforgivable crime against the state, that at the very least, as he so colorfully phrases it, “She built the nest that hatched the plot.”
Aiken’s determination and self-discipline set him at some distance from his peers, with whom he regularly gathers in a wood paneled sitting room to discuss their lives and—to an extent—the case. While they carry on about Surratt’s obvious culpability and likely punishments, he demurs. His maybe girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel)—a character added to this fictional mix—helps to set his concerns within a kind of class-based framework. Perfectly coiffed and powdered, untouched by the war and genuine loss (as opposed to his wounding) or by questions of justice, her frustrations with him stand in for a whole population’s assumptions about what’s right and who’s entitled to due process.
By vivid contrast, Surratt and her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), embody another set of values. Plainly dressed and sober in every way, the Surratt women are tough and angry. Anna appears first in her home, into which Aiken steps in search of a story to tell—as Mary Surratt refuses, essentially, to defend herself. Alone and beset by stones thrown through her windows, Anna brings stoicism to a whole other level, a level that impresses Aiken. As he comes to see the flaws in the legal process, he comes to share Anna and her mother’s resentment of it.
Repeatedly and rather ploddingly, the film makes clear their objections are righteous, particularly in the courtroom scenes, which take up the bulk of the action. The prosecution is headed by Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), a villainous scalawag if ever there was one. Again and again, he threatens witnesses, influences the judges’ panel, and surprises his opponent. While Aiken appears to be up to most challenges, being a charismatic wily performer himself, he is also outgunned and eventually outmaneuvered. As in history, this Mary Surratt is the first woman executed by the United States, hanged in July 1865, following a couple of melodramatic turns that do little to alter The Conspirator‘s essential design.
The few nuances in that design are found in Mary and Anna Surratt’s efforts to make sense of the men around them. These men are visible on all sides, even in their own house, when John (Johnny Simmons) and the other conspirators appear in flashbacks. Whether dressed in fine suits or military uniforms, in scrabbly “subversives”’ gear or town drunk’s rags, men in The Conspirator are so sure of their rightness that they don’t even have to conspire. If Aiken is cast here as the lone male sensitive enough to hear what the girls have to say. Even if he doesn’t quite believe in Mary’s innocence, he does believe wholeheartedly that railroading and politicking the legal process is wrong.
In the film’s story, which is Aiken’s story, Mary and Anna embody both the problem and the possible solution. When at last Aiken convinces Anna to testify on her mother’s behalf, and the women are allowed to be in the same room together for the first time in months, the threat they pose to a fearful and patently masculine order is intensely visible. Holt arranges for a line of soldiers to stand between the women so they are unable to see one another. At once cruel and ingenious, the strategy alludes as well to other, similar strategies then and now, the conniving of men in power to abuse prisoners and arrange judgments without being legally liable. The trajectory from this moment to the Abu Ghraib photos to Manning’s treatment at Quantico is too obvious, but disturbing nonetheless.