04/15/2011 08:43 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2011

Movie Review: The Conspirator

As he did with Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford uses The Conspirator to construct a conscience-pricking drama that tells one story while commenting (not all that obliquely) on something else.

In the case of Lions for Lambs, it was the rush to war in Iraq, for reasons that were murky at best, outright lies at worst.

The Conspirator has a comparable "ripped from the headlines" feel. In this case, it's the situation at Guantanamo Bay and the recent crumbling by the Obama administration on the issue of military tribunals for suspected terrorists, rather than a trial by jury in a civilian court.

What's amazing is the way the James Solomon's script - about the trial of a boarding-house owner for her part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln - captures the kind of us-vs.-them, might-makes-right approach that seemed to dominate the discourse from the Bush administration after 9/11. In this case, it's that sense of incipient post-war panic after Lincoln is murdered: We have to crack down RIGHT NOW or all hell is going to break loose.

So, yeah, let's suspend the inconvenient parts of the Constitution. Then let's rush to judgment so we can have closure.

In this story, the one gnashing his teeth for blood and not worried about the niceties - is U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). He leaps into action after Lincoln is shot, rounding up all the conspirators - and casting his net wide enough to include Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), whose son was involved with Booth's plot, which was planned at her boarding house.

But was Mary Surratt herself complicit? Theoretically, that should be the job of a prosecutor to prove. But Civil War hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an attorney who is drafted to handle Surratt's defense, discovers that the deck is stacked against her by Stanton, who wants all of the conspirators hanged, buried and forgotten.

Aiken has no interest in defending her. He is importuned by a friend, Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) of Maryland, to help in her defense. No matter his feelings about her guilt, Johnson says, she's entitled to a defense. But the government has made defending her difficult, by having her tried in front of a military tribunal.

She and her lawyers have no opportunity to discover the evidence against her or interview the witnesses the government will bring into court. The military will try her and she is presumed guilty before she starts.

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