The Conspirator (2011)
Starring James McAvoy and Robin Wright
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, was assassinated. Lincoln was sitting in a theatre watching a play when John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind the President and shot him in the head. It was a tragic moment for the people of the United States. A nation was in mourning and demanded justice. Booth was shot and killed in the ensuing manhunt. But Booth did not act alone. He was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the President. Eight people were brought to caught accused of conspiracy to murder. One of them was Mary Surratt, the owner of a boarding house. The Conspirator tells the story of Mary Surratt’s trial. While the people call for her execution, questions begin to arise. Is Surratt actually guilty? And is the court more interested in vengeance than justice? The Conspirator is not just a movie describing a historical event. Because these are issues that still have an impact today.
The Conspirator is a well acted, well made movie. For an historical film about a real world event, and a court room drama no less, there’s a real danger that the result can be pretty dry and boring. This is not the case with The Conspirator. Much of this comes down to James McAvoy, who plays Surratt’s lawyer, Frederick Aiken. McAvoy is definitely an actor worth keeping an eye on. Between this and X-Men: First Class, he has demonstrated that he has the potential to be one of those actors that make you pay attention. The other thing that makes this movie work is the ambiguity of the plot. The characters at the beginning of the film, especially Aiken, are resolute that Surratt is guilty. But as the movie progresses, it is clear that all is not as it seems. People giving testimonies have been bribed or coerced into making statements. Evidence has been neglected or tampered with. And the motives of those conducting the trial are under scrutiny. Director Robert Redford doesn’t make it easy for the audience to form an opinion. As you watch this movie, you are confronted with issues of vengeance and justice and left with a feeling that justice in the real world doesn’t come as readily as Hollywood would have us believe.
Watching this movie, I was reminded of the recent death of Osama bin Laden. Responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center and the resultant deaths in 2001, bin Laden was one of the most hunted and hated men in the world. When American soldiers finally tracked him down and killed him earlier this year, people were cheering. Justice had been done. The celebration made me uneasy. And I was forced to ask myself – had justice been done? Had bin Laden been held accountable for his crimes? Had bin Laden faced a court and heard the evidence mounted against him? Had bin Laden been given the opportunity to speak in his defence? Was this justice or vengeance? The death of Osama bin Laden did not feel to me like justice had been done. And in The Conspirator, similar feelings can be found. Mary Surratt does not find herself facing justice. The odds are stacked against her and the people in power have no interest in justice being done. They just want to see someone hang so they can feel like the issue has been dealt with and move on. Truth is inconsequential.
The Psalms are full of examples of a yearning for justice. Psalm 13, for example, has David crying out to the Lord “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hid your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2) Justice is something we long for in this world. But because of sin, all things in this world are corrupted. We can’t expect true justice in this world because sinful men and women are the ones making decisions. We look forward to an age where real justice will be had. Where everyone will be called to account for their sinful actions and behaviours. And where an honest and just judge will deal with sin once and for all. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-26) The day Jesus returns and brings justice to all of creation is a day I look forward to with great eagerness.
The Conspirator is a movie that is both enjoyable to watch as well as a movie that will make you think. While I enjoyed it, there was something missing for me. And that probably has more to do with my preference for explosions over court room drama. For anyone who enjoys historical drama, court room tension, or movies that have something worth while to say, The Conspirator is well worth a look.