(M) Robin Wright, James McAvoy
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” was famously stated by Dr Spock in the second Star Trek movie, almost three decades ago.
Irrespective of religious belief, stacks of people around the world hold to this view, appealing to “the greater good” as a compelling justification for actions they choose to take.
What “the greater good” is, and what can be done in the name of it, is a highly subjective equation.
The Conspirator hinges on this problematic notion and yearns to expose how easily it can be exploited. Based on the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, this stately historical courtroom drama focuses upon the apparently biased trial of Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright), the only woman accused of participation in the president’s killing.
As loudly demanded by the dastardly Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (played by Kevin Kline), the expedient and popular option to obliterate Surratt’s civil rights — in order to restore a destabilised United States to a state of calm — clearly echoes how the ongoing War on Terror has been criticised for crushing personal freedoms when “national security” is apparently threatened.
Robert Redford returns to the director’s chair for The Conspirator, and his widely -publicised political views flow beneath his presentation of the Surratt witch-hunt.
James McAvoy is a fine portrait of studied prejudice colliding with escalating indignation, playing the young lawyer forced to take the despised Surratt’s case.
The intentional corruption of the legal process, as well as the presumption of guilt over innocence, are substantial issues that arise during The Conspirator. But it is the overarching issue of the individual versus the national interest which Redford hones in on.
Speeches and arguments can be too obvious in their links to our modern world, undermining the impact of what Redford is rightly questioning. Similarly, our familiarity with courtroom thrillers and cases of tattered justice on the silver screen means that The Conspirator takes mighty swings without always landing new punches.
Despite its muted verdict, though,Redford’s pointed history lesson should still have you analysing your own attitudes about whether any “collateral damage” is reasonable when the greater good is at stake.