History lessons generally engage a small part of the population. The grand narratives, political relevance and window into old traditions that engage the typical history-buff are often lost on the layman. Robert Redford’s historical drama The Conspiracy will both engage the thoughts and attention of one type of viewer, but bore and drone on to the other.
The movie details an important, but often forgotten aspect of the Lincoln assassination: the trial of the assassination’s conspirators. Seven men and woman are arrested because they were allegedly involved in the conspiracy to kill the President and the attempt to kill his cabinet. Fueled by the anger and anguish throughout the country, the War and Justice Departments’ choose to use military commissions instead of the civilian court system; a policy that by its very nature impacts civil liberties.
The male conspirators, for the most part, are passed over in the story. The real focus is on whether the alleged female conspirator, Mary Surratt, truly is guilty or just unfortunate. The main character, Union war hero and attorney Frederick Aiken, is forced to defend her by his boss. Although completely against helping her, he still puts his full effort into the case when he realizes that not all the facts add up as easily as he thought. Legal intrigue ensues.
This movie feels like a documentary. All the ho-hum banter between characters and minor side relationships feel like subterfuge placed to prop an otherwise direct and narrow plot. The entire film may as well be called a reenactment of the original trial. Anything interesting that happens in this movie will happen during a trial scene. Adding to the dry, re-enactment feel is the foreboding tone. A feeling of dramatic irony and gloom will pervade anyone familiar with the history of this case.
All energy and passion will take place in the courtroom. The dank, dark room the trial takes place is brimming with emotions and suspense. Scenes range from Aiken’s frustration with the military tribunal to his mockery of the prosecutor. The tension is at its paramount level when the interrogations on both sides become personal and witnesses actually betray their own friends and family for personal gain or honor.
The dialogue, barring the occasional attempt at a joke, is best used when describing facts of the case and investigation. This actually extends to the characters as well. Aiken is at his most interesting when he’s cross-examining the witnesses and looking for clues. His conflicts with his friends and loved ones are not only underdeveloped and barely explained, but glossed over and unresolved by the movie’s end.
For anyone interested in political parallels, the film is a blunt take on the Guantanamo Bay controversy. Anyone moderately fluent in current events will see the parallels between the secret evidence, military tribunals and assumption of guilt featured in the movie and their current day equivalents. This movie makes no attempt at political subtlety and openly presents its argument of the importance of civil liberties.
Overall, this film is a two-hour lecture. Anyone who wishes to learn about Civil War in a way slightly more interesting than reading books or Wikipedia will find plenty to see here. More casual viewers will be put off by the grim, no-nonsense style and penchant for technical jargon.