The Conspirator

Robert Redford’s new film tells the story of the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who was accused of being one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Surratt owned the boardinghouse where the conspirators met. Surratt’s assigned attorney, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) persuades a young lawyer, Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) to take over the case. Aiken, who was wounded while serving in the Union army, is at first reluctant, but he becomes convinced that Surratt, who is being tried by a military tribunal instead of a civilian court, is being treated unjustly. His attempts to get a fair trial for Surratt are opposed by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who argues that “swift justice” is necessary to keep the country together after the shock of Lincoln’s death.

The parallels with recent events are obvious. This film is an argument for the need to maintain the right to a fair trial even during a national emergency. The film is honest in that it doesn’t try to make a heroine out of Surratt. It makes clear that Surratt knew that the conspirators were up to something, even if she didn’t know all the details. However, the film also makes the point that if Surratt’s son, John (Johnny Simmons), who was one of the conspirators, had been captured right away, she probably would not have received the death penalty. Also, it shows that some of the witnesses against Surratt were not completely honest.

This film’s greatest strengths are the intelligent script and the fine performances. Wright is especially good as Surratt, making the character human without seeming pitiful. Kline exudes a brutal earnestness as Stanton. I recommend seeing this film.

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