"In times of war, the law falls silent." - Cicero
Robert Redford's The Conspirator dramatizes the military trial of Mary
Suratt, a boarding house owner accused of harboring conspirators and
being involved in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. It
is a strong, if somewhat obvious, drama that depicts the mood of
hysteria that followed the assassination, and suggests its relevance to
today's politics. Written by James Solomon who spent fourteen years
researching the story, the film opens with a brief introduction showing
the agony of combat troops in the Civil War, then focuses on the
assassination of the President on April 14, 1865 by actor John Wilkes
Booth (Toby Kebbell), a Southern partisan and his companions Lewis
Payne (Norman Reedus), David Herold (Marcus Hester), and Samuel Arnold
(Jeremy Tuttle) at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C..
Stealthily entering the President's box, Booth shoots Lincoln in the
head, then leaps onto the stage shouting “sic semper tyrannis” (thus
always to tyrants), and escapes on horseback. The assassination results
in an outpouring of grief all over the country, and prompts the
Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) to vow revenge against
the conspirators. After a two week search, Booth is found hiding in a
nearby barn and shot to death, while seven suspected co-conspirators
are arrested including Mary Suratt. Suratt is tried by a military
tribunal where the rules state that only a majority vote is required
for a guilty verdict and a two-thirds vote is needed to sentence a
defendant to death. It is a court where a defendant is prohibited from
testifying in their own defense.
Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) from Virginia and a former U.
S. Attorney General agrees to defend Suratt on the grounds that she is
innocent until proven guilty. The Senator, however, withdraws because
he fears that being a Southerner might prejudice his case, and asks
Frederick Aiken (James McEvoy), a northern attorney to defend her.
Initially reluctant and dubious about her story, Aiken resolves to
prove her innocence after seeing that the defendant was up against an
overbearing prosecutor (Danny Huston), a biased head of the tribunal
(Colm Meany), and the behind-the-scenes antagonism of Secretary
At great cost to his personal life, Aiken tries to prove that Ms.
Suratt knew the boarders who lived in her house, but was not involved
in their conspiracy. As the case progresses, it becomes apparent that
only her son John (Johnny Simmons), a known conspirator who fled to
Canada, can save his mother by surrendering. While there is limited
dimension to the characters, The Conspirator is true to the historical
record and the film presents its message in a clear and powerful way.
Redford, long a champion of civil liberties, implicitly reminds us that
the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly guarantees that
“no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law” and
provides no exception for war.
It is not only an important message for those unfamiliar with our
nation's history, but is strikingly relevant to the present day in
which hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo still languish in prison
without trial, where a U.S. citizen, suspected of terrorist activities,
is targeted for an assassination attempt without having been charged
with, let alone convicted of, any crime, and where the ideal of due
process and the presumption of innocence is slowly being replaced by
unlimited violence, the repudiation of legality, and the undermining of