One of the darkest moments in American history would have to be the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Even when I was a child, the event was taught to me as a part of grade-school history and often discussed by my father since he was a judge. It was such a tragic event that invoked the fury of a nation and affected many who had lived during that era. Robert Redford’s films have always managed tightly-woven tales of intrigue and suspense that depended on very meticulous storytelling, great direction and solid visualization. “The Conspirator” may (arguably) not be one of his stronger films if you are expecting a solid answer to the question that plagued this lesser-known moment in history. If you are expecting a historical drama that provides answers, then the film may indeed disappoint. “The Conspirator” is more or less a morality play wrapped around a political statement that may or may not have shaped the laws of this great nation.
After the death of President Lincoln, the assault on the Secretary of State and the death of his assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, America was screaming for justice and demands retribution for the death of their beloved leader. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is religious, meek and hails from the South, whose son played a part in the conspiracy. An accusation, she denies to a degree and she now is about to stand trial along with other conspirators. Political tension made Senator Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to step down as Surratt’s defender and a reluctant young lawyer named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, Wanted) is left to take over her defense. Aiken is a Union Captain who had served in the war and feels strongly that Mary Surratt is indeed guilty. Nonetheless, Aiken embarks on the unfair trial, searching for answers that may help his case and irking the government (Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton) that desperately wants Surratt’s execution.
“The Conspirator” is a drama that brings a lot of things to the table, but it never points an accusing finger at Mary Surratt nor does it make a statement that she is innocent. The film isn’t about “did she or didn’t she?” but rather was she given a fair trial according to the constitution? During a time where the nation’s peace seems very fragile, such a trial would no doubt be fueled by anger. Redford makes the nation’s state of mind his primary motivation for the film’s premise. I am not sure just how historically accurate the film is, but Redford does manage to get the intended dramatic elements going. Surratt is portrayed as a mother who wishes to protect her son, while this may indeed make her guilty of obstruction, her trial may indeed be one made to satisfy the needs of the North rather than a true search for justice.
The manner with which Redford executed this time and era was just stunning. He definitely captured the right atmosphere, mood and tone to the film. It masterfully evokes this era, as Redford captures the state of mind after the civil war, he creates a blatant sense of disorder as the trial leans against its backdrop. The screenplay by James Solomon makes the film’s courtroom scenes come alive with a sense of imbalance and insecurity as the shadow of an angry North and the threat of Southern rebellion seems to exude that flammable national ambiguity.
Mary Surratt was wonderfully portrayed by Robin Wright. She was a woman, who knows something, and yet, things were unclear. You know her motivations and Redford does expose the love of a mother for a son, and while I may not agree, I feel and understand why, but may not truly see as to how it can be. Surratt most certainly is guilty of something, but the film isn’t confirming nor denying, the film is questioning the process of her trial. James McAvoy is capable as Aiken, though there were times that I thought the script struggled to exhibit his commitment and became dangerously close to becoming too melodramatic. Aiken’s character is the one of strong Northern mentality, yet, he becomes a believer of due process, and cannot abide with what he has seen. His beliefs whether or not Surratt was guilty became a secondary priority, what Aiken saw was an unfair trial and he cannot stand by it. In a way, the direction shaped the Aiken character with one of strong moral fiber, and he "found" himself during this trial.
I guess what I thought were the film’s greatest weaknesses were the somewhat weaker rendition of the testimonies, and the questioning lacked a little consistency and narrative power. I am not sure, I felt that Aiken and the prosecuting attorney (Danny Holt) didn’t exactly convince me of the urgency of the proceedings. It seemed to drain the tension of the premise the more the trial went on. The revelations and discoveries were good in generating doubt, but it just couldn’t make the film run away with all its intended momentum. There were some heated subplots that thankfully made the film much more compelling, as the government tries to thwart Aiken’s efforts to find out the truth. The film also has some heart-stopping legal filings and the promise of victory, only to suffer further in heart-aching futility.
“The Conspirator” is a very good wartime courtroom drama that made me wonder and ponder how the needs of a majority can define justice or the supposed goal for justice. There is a line in the film that made me cringe; that during wartime, the laws will have to be ignored. I’ve read somewhere that laws don’t apply when a nation is at war, so I guess what Redford is trying to ask the audience is; “should laws be sacrificed during war or the threat of war?”. I really liked “The Conspirator”; it was a fine film that was competently directed and executed with care. I felt that while it does have the right ambition and the right intentions, in the end it made it a little too safe. It is a compelling and engaging film and worthy of a watch, but it could’ve been so much more. As good as the film was, I feel that it only scratched the surface of this moment in history; but nonetheless, it is still a wonderfully rendered film for what it wanted to be.
When I went to see this movie I knew nothing about it. The trailer merely indicated a period courtroom drama starring James McAvoy. While I would hesitate to call it one of the best movies of the year, undoubtedly this movie or more precisely the story this movie relates impacted me more deeply than most do. So much so that I have bought several books on the subject to get as full an understanding of this event as possible. As an experienced director … more
Star Rating: Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is in part the story of Mary Surratt, who in 1865 was tried and convicted in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She ultimately became the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. Although she owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and several other people – including her son, also named John – were accused of hatching a scheme to first kidnap then murder … more
The Conspirator is an historical drama that transcends its historical setting to surface some very basic ethical questions. But at the same time, it is a well-made and interesting depiction of the events surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I have read a number of books on the subject over the years, so I was pleased to see the events portrayed with such detail and accuracy. From an historical perspective, it does a great job of depicting the political and … more