Movie Review: “The Conspirator”

The Conspirator (The American Film Company, 2011).

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for Some Violent Content

“In times of war, the law falls silent.”-Cicero

Every American is familiar with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by famed actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth that took place on April 14th, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. But few Americans are familiar with the events that transpired afterward. The assassination was part of a conspiracy to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward, with only the Lincoln part of it succeeding. Following the assassination, Booth was hunted down and killed, and the Federal Government rounded up those who were considered part of the conspiracy. Among those arrested was Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where Booth and his conspirators met to plan the abduction of Lincoln, and whose son was Booth’s right hand. The military trial of Surratt and other members of Booth’s party is the subject of Director Robert Redford’s latest film The Conspirator, the premiere project of the American Film Company, whose purpose is to create films based on actual stories from American history.

Redford is no stranger to films with dealing with political commentary (All the President’s Men, Lions for Lambs), and The Conspirator is no exception. The film follows Frederick Aiken, a Union war hero who is given the thankless task of defending Mary Surratt against a military tribunal which has already made up its mind on the verdict for Surratt, a known southern sympathizer and devout Catholic. Although he questions whether or not she is truly guilty or innocent of the crime, he cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the War Department will do anything it can to make sure she is found guilty, and tries everything he can to make sure she is given fair treatment.

The film presents a powerful argument on the Constitutionality of civilians being tried in military tribunals. Although most of those tried were indeed guilty of the crime of conspiring to assassinate Lincoln, Johnson and Seward, these men should have been tried in a civilian court, with a jury of their peers, and not a group of officers charged not with issuing justice, but enacting what was nothing more than Government-sponsored revenge. And when things do not go according to plan, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, presses to make sure that they do. The outcome of this trial would have great ramifications on the judicial system, and lead to laws being passed that would guarantee that travesties such as this would not happen in the United States again.

As for the movie itself, it is fantastically done. The performances in this movie are dynamic overall. James McAvoy plays Aiken, and gives a thoughtful and riveting performance as Surratt’s attorney. Robin Wright gives a warm and tender portrayal of Mary Surratt, making you feel very sympathetic to the character, while also realizing she may not be telling the whole truth. Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meany and Tom Wilkinson give terrific performances as well. But the finest performance in The Conspirator belongs to Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Stanton. He gives a subdued performance, but behind his eyes can be seen a man who wants revenge for what has happened. You cannot help but despise the man after seeing this, and the characterization of the man as presented in the film is spot on to what history has to say about him. Aside from a rather uncomfortable performance by Alexis Bledel as Aiken’s love interest, the rest of the cast is solid.

While James Solomon’s script tends to drag from time to time, the courtroom scenes, terrific performances and fantastic direction make up for a lot. There is no denying that Robert Redford is a master director, and when given a story as good as this one, he gives his all into telling it as best he can. Despite a few moments of poetic license, this is definitely one of the more historically accurate films to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. The attention to detail, from costumes and props, to historic structures and scenery, is startling to behold. This first outing from the American Film Company bodes well for that company’s future.

In closing, I highly recommend The Conspirator to those who love history, as well as those who enjoy serious films. It features terrific performances, a fine story, and fantastic direction from Oscar-winner Robert Redford. The film also has much to say about Constitutional rights, and how the impact of this trial would lead to ramifications in the judicial system that are still with us today.

Movie Grade: A-


5 responses to “Movie Review: “The Conspirator”

  1. Great, insightful review, Stephen! As we discussed on Facebook, you know I take a different view of the film and its motives 🙂 I’ve had an obsession with the assassination, trial and aftermath for nearly 40 years. I’ve read nearly everything about it I can get my hands on over the years, and one of my prized books is the government’s published transcripts of the trial.
    My opinion is that actually about 97% of the film is historically inaccurate. I think Stanton’s character was made to be the treacherous, murderous villain. Just about everything he says in the film is not attributed, and some lines are even outlandish such as the “Either one (Surratt) wil do. It doesn’t matter.” Redford’s politics led him to make several points: The War (Defense) Department is comprised of murderous thugs willing to do anything to accomplish their objectives; no one should ever be tried by military tribunals (911 conspirators?); you might be innocent (Mary Surratt, the evidence seems to show, was guilty as sin) but if the government finds it expedient they’ll simply take you out. Redford played fast and loose with history to accomplish his agenda. Here are just a few:
    I can make that list about 10 times as long, but it’s a good start 🙂
    I would much rather have seen a historically accurate film made of such an important facet and event of our history, but Redford gets to do what he wants. Unfortunately, lots of people will take this film for gospel, and it will be the only exposure they have of the event, thinking that it actually happened that way.
    Critics have been very mixed about it. I don’t mean to sound political (just presenting it the way it is) but liberal critics love the film (about half). The other half (those familiar with the history and yeah, those who may be conservative leaning) panned it. Admittedly, anything Redford is involved with will be looked at critically because of his politics.
    Personally, on the upside, it was beautifully filmed. I thought the assassination scene, taking Lincoln’s dying body to the Peterson house, and the hanging scene was very well done. Pretty much everything in between, however, was fabricated hooey.
    Just my two cents – your mileage may vary 🙂

    • You do make some valid points, J.D. I’m as conservative as they come, but I do feel that the film makes a valid point about the questionable tactic of trying civilians in military court. A citizen of the United States should be protected from such tribunals, even for such a heinous act as assassinating the President. However, it is different when we talk about the 9/11 Conspirators and any terrorist captured in the field. Granted, we should treat any prisoner as fairly as possible, but since they are not citizens of the United States, they do not have the same rights. They are military prisoners captured in war. The tribunal the Nazis faced at Nuremberg was another good example of that. But unless a U.S. Citizen is a member of the military, they should always be tried in civilian courts. I think that was a very valid point made. And even though Redford made it, I was surprised that it was definitely in support of the U.S. Constitution.

      No film can be 100% accurate, but I felt this one was very close, and bodes well for the future of the American Film Company. Their next film is will be The Arsenal, about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. I’m really looking forward to that one.

      God bless!

  2. I agree with much of that, but again my concern is that the point is made by fabricating much of the film. Does the end justify the means? Is it OK to put words in Stanton’s mouth – things we NEVER said or did according to the known evidence – to make a point? Can a film like this, replete with one historical error after another, do more damage than good since many folks will think it’s factual history since it may be the only exposure they have to the event?
    Let’s say we have a modern event such as this. So, we make a film that completely misrepresents things that people such as the current president, Sec of Defense, etc. etc. say and do. However, viewers then go away thinking that it’s historical. However, we make the point we want to make, even though millions of people now have a view of the major players that the record does not support. We put words in their mouths and make them do things just to support the agenda of our film.
    Does the end justify the means? Does historical accuracy matter anymore? And if it does, if we have an agenda for a film but we just can’t find the historical evidence to support it as well as we’d like, are we perhaps better off just making a completely fictional movie (with fictional characters) rather than misrepresenting the lives of actual historical people?
    I do believe these questions are important. What matters most – making a point, or staying as true to actual history as possible if a historical event is being portrayed?

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