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-