Mary Surratt is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.
The assassination of Lincoln occurs in the last days of the Civil War and it is a shattering blow to a damaged nation. There are forces in Government, represented by Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kline) who are fighting to keep the nation safe and stable. They want the perpetrators of the Lincoln assassination brought to justice quickly. Or seen to be brought to justice. They believe that anything less than a swift verdict on the case will plunge the states back into war.
These are the explosive politics that lawyer soldier Frederick Aiken (MacAvoy) has to deal with. He reluctantly accepts the task of defending Mary Surrat, the mother of one of the conspirators and owner of the boarding house where many of them met and planned the assassination. Aiken assumes his client is guilty. As a former Union soldier who was injured two years previously, he is as horrified by the killing of Lincoln as anyone. As he begins to argue the case, he discovers that Edwin Stanton and his supporters in government have made it very difficult for Mary Surrat to receive a fair trial.
As directors go, Robert Redford is not prolific. His heyday as an actor ended in the mid 1980s. Since then he has been an environmental activist, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Channel and the producer of more than 27 films, many of them documentaries. He has directed just two features since THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE in 2000; they are LIONS FOR LAMBS (2007) and THE CONSPIRATOR.
His movies are artistically conservative, but have liberal political leanings. They tend to be well-crafted entertainments and are often set in the past like QUIZ SHOW and A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT. Redford is 74, he is not your go-to guy for edgy, youth-oriented entertainment.
Many of his movies seem to have an “old Hollywood” gloss about them, although this cannot be said for THE CONSPIRATOR. It doesn’t have the sheen of a Bagger Vance or Quiz Show. The starkness of the subject matter has led Redford to create a very gritty looking–and at times–visually unlovely film.
THE CONSPIRATOR is a solid historical movie. Yet it is also designed for an audience to see the parallels with 19th Century American history and recent events. The idea that one person can be sacrificed against their will for the good of many is thought provoking. This and the idea that the security of the nation should be pursued at all costs even if it infringes on the freedoms of individuals is still relevant.
If you want to see a well-made historical political drama with some good performances–Robin Wright is excellent as Mary Surrat–then this movie may be just what you’re looking for.
THE CONSPIRATOR is on Australian screens now. It runs for 122 minutes. I rated it 3/5.