For me it’s a win win when I can see an engaging film with good performances that is also based on a bit of history I knew nothing about. The Conspirator, set in 1865, goes beyond the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln to look into all the possible schemers who might have been involved in the plot to kill Lincoln.
Robin Wright Penn & James McAvoy
The film begins on the Civil War battleground where it’s clear Union soldier Capt. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is not only seriously injured himself, but struggling to save other injured solders as well. Shortly the film moves a few years forward in time to just moments before Lincoln is shot at the Ford Theatre. It’s not long after he dies that officials are on the trail of those connected with John Wilkes Booth and the murder. They quickly learn that he and his comrades resided in a boarding house run by Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn). They go to the house actually looking for Mary’s son John (Johnny Simmons) who is allegedly one of the co-conspirators.
John is no where to be found which only points a stronger finger to his guilt. They question Mary and her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) about John’s whereabouts but both women deny knowing anything.
James McAvoy & Tom Wilkinson
Since they can’t find John, officials arrest Mary on charges of conspiracy to murder the President. In a twist of fate Aiken’s superior Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) insists Aiken represent Mary in court. Aiken is both surprised and indignant that he, a staunch Union solider, should be commanded to defend a woman he’s sure had something to do with the plot.
After spending some time in the Sutter home with Anna and time with Mary in prison, Aiken comes to believe that Mary is actually not involved in the conspiracy. But time and time again every point he brings up in the Federal trial gets shot down and at times General Hunter (Colm Meaney) and his wartime tribunal even change the law on the spot to suit their case.
Robert Redford & James McAvoy
While the story unfolds at a leisurely pace, I was never bored or distracted from the events taking place. Director Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life) keeps each new incident of the film moving along. He’s helped by outstanding performances by Wright Penn (State of Play), McAvoy (127 Hours), Wilkinson (The Green Hornet) and Meany (Law Abiding Citizen).
Robin Wright Penn
I would highly recommend this film, however, I think like me, most viewers will be appalled and ashamed of our country’s lack of fairness at the final outcome of The Conspirator.
Photo credits: Roadhouse Attractions