The Conspirator Movie Review

by Rick Grant
146 years ago, (1865) the Civil War was over, leaving pervasive grief throughout the land and bitterness in the South. Incredibly, 625,000 men died and many more were horribly maimed.
President Lincoln wanted to move on as a united nation, healing the deep wounds of war. However there were many ex-Confederate soldiers who refused to accept the outcome of the war. They vowed to fight on as a loosely knit band of guerilla fighters.
A cadre of these bitter ex-soldiers were living at Mary Surratt’s boarding house, including her son. They would regularly conduct secret meetings, plotting to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him for ransom to pay back the enormous losses of the Confederacy, now broken and demoralized.
This film, deftly directed by Robert Redford, tells the story of the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth who was tracked down to a barn and killed by a sniper’s bullet. The nation was so outraged by this despicable act of murder, it threatened to destabilize the nation, and reignite the Civil War.
To avert this catastrophe, the Secretary of War (Kevin Kline) decreed that anyone even remotely involved with the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was to be rounded up and swiftly tried by a military commission, hanged, and forgotten post haste. Indeed, the brutal murder could have inflamed the passions of the grieving war dead’s relatives to again take up arms.
In the scenario, Redford concentrates on the trial of Mary Surratt, who was represented by a reluctant young lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) appointed to the task. At first, Aiken believes Ms. Surratt is guilty. However, as he talks to her and gets to know her he becomes convinced she knew nothing of the conspiracy.
What ensues is a high tension, superbly acted court-room drama for that time in history. McAvoy is brilliant as defense attorney Aiken. He shocks the court by making constitutionally driven objections to save his client. He gives her a vigorous defense, far beyond what was expected of him.
Of course, Ms. Surratt’s fate was predetermined. The trial was a kangaroo court, with a parade of coached witnesses who blatantly lied. Aiken was livid at such an outrageous miscarriage of justice.
Drawing on his intellectual knowledge of the law, Aiken argued and objected vehemently defending his client. The cigar smoking Commission members create an ominous cloudy background for the intense drama.
As far as court room dramas go, this is one of the best of the genre. Redford’s slow even pacing creates the suspense as Aiken confronts the Commission’s fraudulent agenda.
Because Ms. Surratt’s son was involved with the conspiracy and met with the conspirators in her boarding house, the Commission made an assumption that “how could she not be involved.” In reality, she had no idea what her boarders and son were planning.
The scenario actually has a parallel to today’s world. President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay detention center and try the 9/11 conspirators in NYC courts, giving them constitutional rights.
Well, like many other issues during Obama’s first term, he flip-flopped on closing Gitmo and ordered a trial by military tribunal. The decision left Attorney General, Eric Holder, who had lobbied to give the defendants a fair trial by jury in NYC, red faced with embarrassment at being overruled by the White House.