If you see one movie this year, see “Of Gods and Men.” If you see two movies this year, see “Of Gods and Men” and “Conspirator.”
As a child, I recall my family vacations consisting of two different versions. Each Spring my family would travel from our home in Utica, NY, to visit Washington, DC, staying with relatives who lived in Fairfax, Virginia. This would usually take place during the Spring Break of school and the week would be split between DC proper and one of usually two destinations in Pennsylvania: Gettysburg or Philadelphia. Generally, we’d alternate our non-DC stop year-to-year. The other version of Horan family vacations involved time up North in the Adirondack Mountains, usually including a water/amusement park destination such as can found in Old Forge or Lake George.
The point is that, growing up, my brothers and I were exposed to relatively educational and historical experiences from an early age. We didn’t know it at the time, we just came to fall in love with the Smithsonian Museums, the national monuments, Ford’s Theatre and the like, as well as the hallowed battlefields of Gettysburg and the national landmarks replete with historical significance in Philadelphia.
This lifelong interest in the Civil War is what initially drew me to see Robert Redford’s “Conspirator.” I recall, very clearly, the display cases containing the execution hoods of those hanged, the photographs and newspapers relating the saga, and the mystery surrounding the conspiracy that led to that fateful night in April 1865 in Ford’s Theatre.
Yet, as the movie — which, for the most part was very good — unfolded, I was struck by the eerie timeliness of the narrative and was quickly reassured of the the veracity of adages such as “history repeats itself.”
The film tells the story of the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman who was indicted, convicted and hanged in the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Surratt was the proprietor of a boarding house in DC that was the alleged meeting place for the conspirators, among whom was counted Surratt’s son John. One thing I don’t think I knew before the film was that Surratt was a Catholic, something the film certainly highlights.
Like so many stories that have dealt with a similar undefendable-defendant meets soon-to-turn-passionate-to-defend-attorney trope, there are elements of the plot that are understandably predictable. The relevant themes, however, come across with force. Issues like Habeas Corpus, the abuse of power in the face of national tragedy, the subordination of justice to scapegoating, the prioritization of ostensible unity at the expense of truth — all emerge with a chilling effect that reminds the viewer of national discussions from the not-so-distant past. Some, like the issue of torture, continue literally today — just look at the front page of the New York Times!
I think that “Conspirator” does an excellent job eliciting a sense of dejá vu without hammering the viewer over the head with critical questions about today. That is left up to the viewer to pursue. So, whether you are also one interested in the story of the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination and national history or are just interested in exploring some of the issues of our day through Redford’s idiosyncratic mid-nineteenth-century lens, check out “Conspirator.”