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Movie Review: The Conspirator (Updated)

The Conspirator

Robert Redford (left) directs The Conspirator. Photo courtesy of ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS.

Robert Redford has directed and co-produced a spectacular historical film, sure to garner multiple Academy Award® nominations.

Roadside Attractions
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 122 minutes

Directed by Robert Redford

Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Alexis Bledel, James Badge Dale, Jonathan Groff, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Kevin Kline, Justin Long,
Colm Meaney, Stephen Root, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood

Written by James D. Solomon


Studio Synopsis:
In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (ROBIN WRIGHT), 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (TOBY KEBBELL), 26, and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks.

Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (JAMES McAVOY), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son, John (JOHNNY SIMMONS). As the nation turns against her, Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth and save her life.

A riveting thriller, The Conspirator tells a powerful and true story about America then and now.

The film is directed by Robert Redford from a script by James Solomon and is being produced by The American Film Company in association with Wildwood Enterprises. In addition to JAMES McAVOY and ROBIN WRIGHT, the film features a stellar ensemble cast comprised of KEVIN KLINE, EVAN RACHEL WOOD, TOM WILKINSON, ALEXIS BLEDEL, DANNY HUSTON, JUSTIN LONG, COLM MEANEY, and JAMES BADGE DALE.

The Conspirator

(l-r) Robin Wright as Mary Surratt and James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken. Photo Courtesy of ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS.

Jeanne Powell’s Take:
“The Conspirator” in the film title is a noncombatant and a woman, the first woman to be executed by the federal government. More than 500 women and girls were hanged for crimes in various states between 1632 and 1937. Mrs. Surratt was the first to be convicted by a military tribunal.

Mary Surratt is a widow and mother of three who runs a boardinghouse and owns other real estate in the Washington, D.C. area. Several of her boarders turn out to be the men who killed President Lincoln, planned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, and seriously injured Secretary of State William Seward in April 1865.

Coming up this month are the anniversaries of the Civil War victory and of the murder of President Abraham Lincoln three days later. That there was a conspiracy to cripple the U.S. government in 1865 is not in doubt. Whether Mary Surratt was involved, or just protecting her adult son, is unclear even today. What is clear, however, is that the United States was still a new nation, less than a century old, and had been torn apart by a bloody Civil War. While General Grant receives Robert Lee’s surrender on behalf of the southern rebels, there are still over 20 rebel armies in the field. When President Lincoln is assassinated April 15, 1865, the capitol city and the nation are thrown into a frenzy of fear. Radical Republicans in Congress want revenge on the southern states which committed treason by seceding from the Union. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wants the murderous conspirators caught, tried, convicted and hanged — not necessarily in that order.

In this setting of fear and chaos , director Redford introduces us to the main characters. James McAvoy gives a moving and convincing performance as the battle-scarred combat veteran (Frederick Aiken) who simply wants to practice law and marry his sweetheart. Suddenly he is asked to be second chair in the defense of Mary Surratt. She is a pariah; no one in Washington wants to defend her. Aiken has seen his comrades die in four years of a brutal Civil War. Wounded twice in battle, he experiences the shock of his President and commander-in-chief being cut down by assassins. He believes Surratt to be guilty and does not wish to defend her.

Robin Wright gives a fine performance as the widow Mary Surratt, who describes herself as “a southerner, a Catholic and a devoted mother.” It is as a mother that Surratt fights against her attorney, even at the risk of her own life. Wright portrays her as strong and independent, having survived marriage to a drunkard and raised children. How Surratt and her attorney Aiken slowly establish communication and trust is at the heart of this powerful film.

The other major conflict in this film swirls around the Secretary of War (well played by Kevin Kline). America is at war, in the most crippling and devastating kind of conflict – a civil war. Secretary of War Stanton does not want to leave anything to chance. Enemies of the state must be hunted down and punished. The Constitution itself must be suspended, in order to save it, or so it seems. Should a civilian be tried by a military court? This question was not decided by the U.S. Supreme Court until more than a year after Mary Surratt’s execution.

How Frederick Aiken defends Mary Surratt under these impossible conditions, and why Secretary of War Edwin Stanton feels the nation must be protected from further chaos at all costs set the stage for this stunning film.

Redford skillfully directs from a script by James Solomon. Solomon began researching and writing “The Conspirator” in 1993; he came to screenwriting after a career as a journalist. His script is well researched, beginning with his reading of the actual transcripts of Surratt’s trial by the military tribunal. The producers took the extraordinary step of hiring historians to double check the facts and to help set the visuals.

Special credit goes to production designer Kalina Ivanov, costume designer Louise Frogley and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel for their ensemble work. It turns out that the city of Savannah, GA was a good match for 1865 Washington during the making of this film. General Sherman spared that city during the Civil War, so it retains much of the original architecture of the period. Says Kalina Ivanov, “Everything in our film is gaslight or kerosene or candlelight. Everything is organic to the period.”

A brief turn by Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, daughter of the conspirator, holds your attention. Anna is placed under house arrest by the federal government during her mother’s trial. She is called upon to make a hard choice, one which places Anna in conflict with her mother, and Wood recreates that torment vividly.

The shock of the well-planned conspiracy. The drama of hunting and capturing the assassins. The intensity of the courtroom scenes. Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken asks: “Why did I fight for the Union if my rights are not assured?” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says: “To ensure the survival of this nation, I would do anything.” Regardless of your perspective, you will come away from this film with appreciation for the subject matter and how well it is handled.

My rating — four boxes of popcorn.

About Jeanne Powell

Jeanne Powell is a poet and short story writer, who teaches in a summer program for teens. Her most recent books are "My Own Silence" and "Word Dancing," available online and through booksellers. She also hosts spoken word events in San Francisco, and covers cultural happenings for online media.