To make his point, Redford skirts a few crucial realities, not the least of which is that Surratt’s treatment in the civil court of her day probably wouldn’t have been much better. But throughout “The Conspirator” he not only plays up the gray areas of her case, but portrays her prosecutors as heedlessly overreaching — rather than legitimately responding to an attempt to restart the war in a country where scattered fighting continued and in a city that was still a military garrison. Whereas Stanton is portrayed as ruthless in his attempts to “make sure the war stays won,” Aiken’s boss, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) embodies the reconciliationist ideals that Redford clearly cherishes, at one point telling Stanton, “It’s time to heal the nation, Ed, not wage more war.”
Admirable sentiments, surely. But “The Conspirator’s” mistrust of federal power doesn’t seem altogether earned and, what’s more, it takes on new meaning seen through the lens of the present day. While Redford clearly began the project with an eye toward Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the movie’s being released in a tea party-fied America, where loathing for government and cries of “Shut it down!” often teeter perilously close to the brink of secessionist fever. What was clearly intended as an allegory about civil liberties instead exists at that paranoid point where Left and Right join in mutual mistrust of a malign, unchecked government.
What disappears in that convergence is the very Union that Northern soldiers fought and died for. And when it comes to the movies, ’twas ever thus. As University of Virginia history professor Gary Gallagher gracefully proves in his book “Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten,” about how popular culture has shaped ideas about the Civil War, the preservation of the Union has never been deemed worth valorizing by filmmakers, who have historically been more drawn to Lost Cause romanticism or self-flattering stories that emphasize emancipation of enslaved people or the reconciliation of the white South and white North. (At one point in “The Conspirator,” noting the higher causes they both fought for, Surratt tells Aiken, “We’re the same,” a classic reconciliationist elision of the myriad ways the two sides weren’t the same.)
Considering the depiction of white Union soldiers in such late-20th-century movies as “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves,” Gallagher writes, “recent Civil War films fail almost completely to convey any sense of what the Union Cause meant to millions of northern citizens. More than that, they often cast the U.S. military, a military force that saved the republic and destroyed slavery, in a decidedly negative, post-Vietnam light.”
Replace “post-Vietnam” with “post-Iraq” and you get a pretty good description of how the U.S. military is portrayed in “The Conspirator.” Rather than a principle worth fighting for, or a fragile democracy still vulnerable to dead-enders who would reignite the war, the Union is painted as the nest that hatched the egg of an overweening state and arrogant abuse of power. Hollywood may be where Confederates are buried in their onetime capital, but for moviegoers, it’s still the place where the Union Cause goes to die.
(123 minutes, at Gallery Place and Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for some violent content.