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SPECIAL COVERAGE: 'THE CONSPIRATOR'
Review: Historic 'Conspirator' Compelling Cautionary Tale
By Tim Lammers
April 15, 2011
INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & MOVIE NEWS BY TIM LAMMERS
Stepping behind the camera for only the eighth time in the past 30 years since he made his director's debut with "Ordinary People," Robert Redford brings a compelling piece of hidden history to the fore with "The Conspirator," a riveting historical drama about the convicted conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln 146 years ago April 14.
The history books, of course, have exhaustively chronicled the death of Lincoln at the hands of the triggerman, John Wilkes Booth, who was gunned down nearly two weeks later as he refused to surrender to authorities. But a footnote in the whole tragic chapter about the death of the 16th U.S. president involved Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of Booth's
alleged right-hand man, John (Johnny Simmons).
In an effort to protect her fugitive son, Surratt remained mute about her knowledge (or lack thereof) of the plot to kill Lincoln, and was charged as a conspirator in the crime since she ran the boardinghouse where Booth, her son and the other alleged co-conspirators stayed.
Leaving no room for imagination, Redford painstakingly recreates the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent death of Booth, who was discovered hiding in a remote barn 12 days later. But while the film centers on the plight of Surratt, "The Conspirator" is just as much about the personal trials of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero who begrudgingly accepts the task of publicly defending the alleged conspirator in front of a military tribunal.
Redford-Directed Drama Examines Footnote Of Lincoln Assassination
Almost seen as a traitor for his actions, Aiken begins to accept his responsibilities and tries to pull the truth out of Surratt, even as he's strong-armed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). A powerful political figure who ascends to the forefront since Secretary of State William Seward was severely injured in a separate assassination attempt, Stanton wants to let the tribunal swiftly and smoothly take its course, so to convict those responsible and let the country begin its healing. Aiken, on the contrary, feels Surratt should be afforded her rights as dictated by The Constitution, but his allies are thin.
From a filmmaking standpoint, "The Conspirator" is rich in its details from its costumes to historic settings, but doesn't surrender its sensibilities for the sake of style. The tribunal room scenes almost appear to be shot in natural light, resulting in a grainy effect to purposefully to keep the story in its historic context. (Adding to the effect are clouds of tobacco smoke, demonstrating just how far the country has come in regard to its tolerance of indoor smoking).
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT BELOW
The performances are powerful across the board, from McAvoy's conviction and Wright's grace under pressure, to Kline's threatening menace. Obviously known as much for his social activism than his work as an actor or a filmmaker, it shouldn't come as surprise that Redford tips his hand, politically, with "The Conspirator," using Stanton's thirst for revenge before due process as an allegory to certain modern politicians' reactions in similar times of crisis. So in a sense, the film isn't so much a study of Surratt (who has the dubious distinction of being the first woman to be executed by the Federal Government) as it is the process by which she was convicted by.
While "The Conspirator" certainly pleads Surratt's case, it leaves as many questions as there are answers. It doesn't proclaim her innocence and by any stretch, Redford isn't trying to make his film an exercise in revisionist history. If anything, the filmmaker is using "The Conspirator" (penned by James D. Solomon from a story by Solomon and Gregory Bernstein) as a cautionary tale, in the hope a situation akin to Surratt's doesn't happen again.
No matter the time period, whether it be 146 years ago or today, old habits die hard. No matter what side of the aisle, convictions are convictions -- and "The Conspirator" proves that those political convictions are the hardest to break.
"The Conspirator," Rated PG-13. 3 1/2 stars out of 4.